The Conqueror: Sceptre Of Fate Part II: Harbinger Of Fate by: Harpy & HkdonXetG

ScepterofFatepart1

The Conqueror: Sceptre Of Fate

Part II:  Harbinger Of Fate

By: Harpy & HkdonXetG  ©2006

Story Disclaimers

Category:            XWP; Conqueror/Alternate Timeline; Classic X/G; ALT (f/f), mature audience

 Copyright Disclaimer:  Characters from the T.V. Series Xena, Warrior Princess and Hercules, the Legendary Journeys, are copyrighted to MCA/Universal, Studio USA, and Renaissance Pictures. This is an original work of fan fiction, intended for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement is intended. Copies of this story may be made for personal use only, but must include disclaimers. Original characters and plot lines are copyrighted to the authors and may be used with permission.

Spoiler Disclaimer:  This story depicts Xena and Gabrielle in an alternate timeline and is loosely based upon the HTLJ Series episode (H73/414) Armageddon Now II. It is not necessary to have seen the episode to read and enjoy Sceptre of Fate. We encourage you to read Sceptre of Fate, Part I (or re-read it if it’s been a while) though Part II can be read alone.

Content Disclaimer: This is a story about Xena and Gabrielle who, in any timeline, are fated to be together as friends, lovers, and soul mates. And what’s a XWP story without weapons, fights, and the occasional pinch? That means this is an Alternative Fan Fiction story with some scenes of sexual intimacy between two females and some violence, though neither is overly explicit. If you are not 18 years or older, or sexual situations and some violence is not your cup of tea, then this would not be a story for you.

Story Summary

In The Conqueror: Sceptre of Fate, Part II: Harbinger of Fate, Gabrielle is no longer a naïve village girl: she is senior advisor to the Empress of Greece with more power and influence to do good than she had ever dreamed possible. Xena is Empress of Greece with ambitions to rule an empire that eclipses even Alexander the Great. Together their mutual attraction has grown into love, but they soon find that being in love is easy compared to building a relationship – especially when Xena insists it must be kept secret.

Having secured the empire of Greece and de facto control of Rome, Xena now set her sights on the Persian Empire to the east with a bold plan to conquer the Anatolia Peninsula in Asia Minor. However, Xena’s senior military advisor, General Darnell sees Gabrielle’s advice as meddling and the Empress’ willingness to go along with her unorthodox idea of a treaty with the Amazons as a sign of weakness.

When the Amazons come to Corinth, Gabrielle has to work hard to keep all parties focussed on the goal: to sign a treaty of cooperation and avoid needless bloodshed. The Amazon Queen, Terreis, seems to be everything Gabrielle admires, and her friendship with Terreis leads Gabrielle to question whether Fate had meant her to be with Xena or follow another warrior.

Note from the Authors

Acknowledgements: Thanks to everyone who wrote to say they enjoyed reading SOF Part I. Your kind words and encouragement kept us going when RL (real life) threw everything it could at us. We hope you find SOF Part II worth the wait, and we promise you won’t have to wait so long for SOF Part III!

And thanks to Bindi for her support of this project, her advice, and her BR skills. We’d also like to thank SOF fan Yvonne for beta reading our “final” draft version. And thanks to Michele for sharing the adventure (143).

Lastly, we’d like to thank each other for persevering and finally getting this story out to the real world.

Feedback Request:  Your feedback is the manna that sustains us, so please feed the bards at harpy1553@yahoo.co.uk and HkdonXetG@yahoo.com.

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Chapter 1
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A travelling seer once told me I was fated to meet a mighty warrior who was destined to unite a land in turmoil. He said this warrior was going to change the world, and he saw me helping this warrior. Greece is just such a land – its people starving, threatened, enslaved. I believe you are that warrior, General Xena, and I am here to help you.

A year ago, I left my home in Potidaea and joined the army of Xena the Conqueror as General Xena’s personal assistant. I thought my fate had been fulfilled – that I had found the mighty warrior I was meant to help. Over time, I became Empress Xena’s Civilian Affairs Advisor, trusted friend, and so much more. It’s when I fell in love with Xena that I realised the deeper meaning of the seer’s prophecy: love had the power to change the world, and I was meant to love Xena and help her to trust her heart.

~~~~~

If someone had asked me when I was growing up whether I would be excited to attend a reception for the Roman ambassador to the court of the Empress of Greece, the answer would have been a resounding ‘Yes!’ But as I mingled with the cream of Greek society at a reception for Ambassador Brutus, all I could think about was Xena, and the night before as we lay in each other’s arms and made love for the first time.

Xena was so sweet. She was almost as nervous as I was, which surprised me, since she was the experienced one. She was very gentle, not at all demanding; instead she let me know that our first time was about my comfort and pleasure. It was more wonderful than anything I had ever imagined. The softness of her lips and the reverence of her touch awakened my soul to the joy of sharing my body and my heart with her. It was as though we were both discovering the true gift of love. I didn’t want the night to end, but it did, and now I couldn’t wait for the reception to be over so Xena and I could be alone again.

I did my best to act the part of the Empress’ advisor, but I teetered on the edge of failure all afternoon. Everywhere Xena went, my eyes followed. She’d meet my gaze and my knees would go weak. She smiled and my insides felt like a thousand butterflies had shed their cocoons. Xena, on the other hand, appeared composed and in control, attracting guests like bees to a flower wafting its sweet-scented nectar on the summer breeze. She was, in a word, magnificent.

“Magnificent,” a male voice behind my left shoulder concurred as though he had read my thoughts.

“Yes, isn’t she,” I said dreamily. I wasn’t paying attention to the person addressing me.

“I meant the ceremony, the reception, the day, but yes she is magnificent as well.”

I twirled around to see who was talking in my left ear. “Oh, Governor Braextus!”

I knew Braextus from my days as personal assistant to then General Xena. He had been one of her most trusted commanders, and Xena rewarded his service by making him Governor of Thessalia.

It had been at least six months since I had seen him. His hair was a bit greyer around the temples and his girth was a bit more ample. Braextus was never fastidious about his uniform or bathing when he was in the army. How he had changed. Judging by the fine linen of his tunic and all the precious gemstone and gold rings adorning his fingers, Thessalia had become one of the most prosperous regions of Greece.

“You are doing well, Governor.”

“And you, Gabrielle,” he replied, in his deep voice and amiable manner. “I hear congratulations are in order,” Braextus continued.

“Huh?” Suddenly the gift of the gab deserted me and I stood there, tongue-tied and flustered. Had Xena said something to him about us or did he guess from the way my eyes followed her every move? I wondered.

“Your promotion?” he offered.

“Oh, that!” I laughed to cover my confusion. “Yes, thank you.”

“The Empress must like what you do.”

Again, words deserted me, as I tried to discern his meaning. I had learnt that politicians never say anything without it meaning something else.

He continued without pausing for my reply. “So, tell me, how does it feel?”

I heard what the governor was saying, but all I could think about was the previous night and how it felt to have Xena exploring the uncharted territory from the hollow of my neck to the soft flesh behind my knees and everything in between.

“To be the Empress’ most favoured?” he offered again.

“It felt so good,” I replied. The burn of embarrassment swiftly ascended my neck and cheeks when I realised the governor and I were talking about two very different things.

The amply girthed man chuckled. “I’m not sure Darnell shares your feelings, but between you and me, he needed to be brought down a peg or two.”

“Governor, would you excuse me?” I interrupted. “I must see Empress Xena about an urgent matter.”

This time it was Braextus who was confused, until he followed my gaze and saw the Empress looking directly at me from across the hall. “Oh, yes. Certainly. Perhaps we can meet later to discuss funding for capital improvements.”

The rest of Governor Braextus’ comments faded into the background as I made a beeline across the banquet hall full of dignitaries to Xena. All my senses were focussed on reaching her and convincing her to leave the reception early, even if it was only to steal a kiss in a secluded alcove somewhere.
When I finally made it to Xena’s side, she greeted me with a look of excruciating boredom and relief.

“Are you ready to go?” Xena asked me.

I wanted to say ‘of course!’ but I maintained my courtly demeanour. “If it is your wish, My Liege.”

“It is my wish,” she replied with equal formality for others to hear, but her implied desire was for my ears alone.

~~~~~

Without ceremony, Xena and I left the banquet hall by the back door. I felt like a newlywed slipping out of my wedding reception. As we passed the throne room, Xena suddenly remembered she had left her sceptre and wanted to go back and get it. She told me to go ahead up to her chambers and that she would follow shortly. I wasn’t too happy about it, but I obeyed her without complaint.

When I got to Xena’s chambers, I tried to set the mood by pouring two glasses of wine and arranging some pillows on the floor near the fireplace. I made myself comfortable on the pillows with a glass of wine and waited.

Even a minute seemed like an eternity, so by the time Xena arrived, I was feeling more anxious than aroused.

“Does that feature in any of the plans you have for this afternoon?” I asked in a tone more sarcastic than provocative.

“What?” Xena seemed a little distracted.

I nodded at the object she was holding. “That thing,” I replied. I hadn’t meant that literally; I only meant that I was hoping we would have time alone together and other things wouldn’t become a distraction.

“No.”

“Then why did you go and get it?” I took the sceptre from her hand and studied it. The sceptre was made of the purest gold from Chalcidice and fashioned like a torch with a rare green gemstone that sat atop like a flame, “It’s still an ugly rock,” I muttered and tossed it on a nearby chair.

Xena’s eyes followed her sceptre as though she wasn’t complete without it somehow. I didn’t want it to become an elephant in the room. I closed the distance between us and gently touched her face with my hand. “You don’t need that.” I moved her hand from her face and placed it over her heart. “This is where your power lies. And it’s a beautiful thing.”

Xena started to speak but I hushed her with a tender kiss. She took over and kissed me as though she had been gone days instead of minutes. All thoughts of receptions and sceptres vanished – I was left with only one thought, one desire.

“How are you feeling?” Xena asked.

“Like I’ll perish if you don’t touch me,” I replied.

Xena took pity and lay me down onto the bed of pillows, the smile never leaving her face. “Well, we can’t have that.”

I never knew I could be so wet and wanting. It didn’t take long for her to make my insides clench in a wave of delirious release. I responded by gliding my hand along her muscled curves, though still a little uncertain of what to do. Xena made sure I knew what felt good to her, and that made me feel more adventuresome. I copied her every move until we both came together – our love overflowing like a heaving fountain.

We stayed in Xena’s chambers and made love until pleasant exhaustion overtook us. Xena pulled me to her and held me while I blissfully listened to her heartbeat slowly ease back into a regular and steady rhythm. It made me feel, well, proud in a way to know that it was I who’d made her heart pound so hard and fast just a short time before.

“How are you feeling now?” she asked. The timbre of her voice vibrated against my cheek.

“Hmmm, much better,” I purred softly. “And you?”

“Exhausted,” she replied, “you’re insatiable!”

“And that’s a bad thing?” I asked.

“No, that’s a very good thing.”

As we lay together in quiet contentment for several more minutes, feelings of insecurity began crowding out the sweet memories of our lovemaking. I had no reason to doubt Xena’s love for me. However, this niggling fear had crept into my mind that I would wake from this perfect dream and find out I was just another notch on Xena’s belt.

“Are you all right?” Xena asked gently.

“Sure, why do you ask?”

“Your breathing changed and your back muscles tensed.”

“Oh,” I replied flatly. “Well, there is – it’s nothing.”

Xena turned a little so she could meet my eyes. “What is it? Second thoughts?”

“No! Gods, no.” I countered quickly. “It’s… I’m…” I fumbled for a way to broach the subject.

“It’s okay Gabrielle. Don’t try to find the right words, just say what’s on your mind,” Xena reassured me.

“Xena, I’m afraid.”

“Afraid? Afraid of what?”

My eyes slowly lowered. Everything had been so perfect a few moments before. Why ruin such bliss to talk about my silly insecurities? I admonished myself silently.

Xena lifted my head up and kissed me tenderly. “You’re afraid of what happens next, where our relationship goes from here. Am I right?”

“Yes, how did you know?” I was surprised that Xena would know exactly what was troubling me.

“Call it an educated guess. My track record for long-term relationships isn’t that good and then there’s my reputation as a ‘love them and leave them’ kind of person. So let me calm your fears, Gabrielle. I love you and I’ve said that to no one else before you. Please believe me.”

“I do believe you, Xena. But I can’t help wonder why – when you could have anyone – why me? I bring nothing but myself to this relationship. I’m afraid you’ll soon tire of me.”

“Gabrielle that will never happen. I may have shared my body with others and maybe even my heart with one or two, but you are the only one who has shared my soul – only you.”

“Oh, Xena.” I joyfully threw my arms around her neck and started hugging and kissing her. “I love you so much, I can’t wait to tell the whole world that I am yours and you are mine forever and ever!”

Xena’s muscles suddenly flinched and her mood turned subdued. She pulled away from me and sat up. “Look, Gabrielle. That’s something we need to discuss.”

My heart fell. That troubling insecurity gripped me again and words began tumbling out of my mouth like apples out of a bushel basket. “I’m going too fast, aren’t I? You said you loved me. You didn’t say you wanted to spend the rest of your life with me. It’s just that I’ve always believed ‘you meet, you fall in love, you get married’, but that’s silly, two women can’t be married, can they? What was I thinking? I wasn’t thinking. You probably just want to take it one day at a time and here I am going on about forever. I’m okay with taking it one day at a time, if that’s what you want. Of course, I hope it does last forever, but you don’t have to feel that you have to feel that way-”

“Whoa, Gabrielle! Slow down.” Xena grabbed my hands. “Take a breath.”

“I’m sorry, Xena.” I paused to allow my emotions to settle down. “You were saying?”

Xena reached up and moved a lock of hair that had fallen into my eyes. “It’s complicated,” she said eventually.

“Complicated? What do you mean?”

“Our relationship. You can’t say anything to anyone – not even your family. We have to keep it a secret.”

“A secret?” I almost squealed in a high-pitched voice. This was doing nothing to lessen my insecurities. I didn’t understand why we had to keep it quiet.

Her eyes conveyed the seriousness she felt about the matter. “No one can know that we are together as a couple.”

I was confused and a little hurt. “Why? Are you ashamed of me? Of us?”

“No, of course not. It’s just that…” Xena paused to consider her words before she continued in a softer voice. “We have to be discreet.”

Insecurity and lack of sleep ruled my emotions and I didn’t take it very well. I wanted to shout ‘Hey World, I’m in love with Xena!’ from the palace roof. It crushed me to hear that she wanted to keep it – keep me – a secret.

“I guess I’m just another one of your conquests, eh Xena?” The words came out before I had even thought.

Xena looked as if I had slapped her.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“You know how I feel about you, Gabrielle, but now is not the time.”

“I don’t see the problem,” I countered. “We are two people who love each other. It’s that simple. How could anyone have a problem with that?”

“If we were just two ordinary people, then perhaps it would be that simple, but we are not, are we?”

“No,” I grudgingly acknowledged.

“Right.” Xena cradled me in her arms. “So I need to protect you from my enemies.”

I drew back from Xena’s embrace and looked at her. “What enemies? Caesar is dead.”

“Someone in my position has many enemies, Gabrielle, enemies who would stop at nothing to see my head on a pike and their head wearing my crown. The last thing I want is to put you in danger. No one must know about us until the time is right. Understand?” She finished with an anxious rush of words.

I suddenly felt ill. “Xena, I, um, I’ve sort of already told someone.” I chewed my lower lip. “I told Galates.” I paused and waited for Xena’s angry response. She sat there, stone-faced, but said nothing. “I’m sorry. I had to tell someone! I was so happy after last night and Galates is a friend and he’s going away and I’m going to miss him and I just wanted him to know I’ll be all right and, and…”

I completely missed the amused look on Xena’s face and continued babbling. “…Galates has been a good friend, a true friend and he’s always been reliable, and he understands that if I confide anything in him it’s to go no further – like my sister, Lila. She was my best friend growing up and we could tell each other anything and we’d know our parents wouldn’t find out, like the time I let the pig escape after trying to ride him and fell off and he just ran away and that’s what it’s like with Galates. Please don’t have him flogged or killed or…” I finally took notice of the knowing smile on Xena’s face. “Why are you smiling?”

“I already know you spoke to Galates. I spoke to him this morning.”

“You did? You did! You let me apologise and blather on, when all the while you knew! You…why you.” I launched myself at Xena. We both knew Xena could’ve easily broken free from my hold, but she was laughing too hard. “You will pay for that!” I tried to sound threatening, but even I couldn’t take me seriously and fell over laughing.

Suddenly I remembered that we had been talking about Galates. “Wait, why did you go see him?”

“Who?”

“Galates.”

“I knew you would tell him about us. I wanted to strike pre-emptively.”

Her words ‘strike pre-emptively’ filled me with apprehension. The last thing I wanted to do was get Galates into trouble. “Xena, it wasn’t Galates’ fault. It was mine. If you are angry then take it out on me, not him. Please.”

Xena gave me a puzzled look and then put two-and-two together. “Did you think I went there to silence him or something?” She chuckled and kissed me on my forehead. “Galates is a loyal friend, but more importantly, he is the only one I can trust to look after you,” Xena explained.

Now I had the puzzled look.

“I gave him his new orders,” Xena explained. “I put him in charge of the Palace Guards.”

It took a moment for Xena’s words to sink in. “In charge of the Palace Guards? Does that mean he’s not going away?”

“He will be staying right here,” Xena confirmed.

I pushed Xena backward onto the pillows again and smothered her with grateful kisses. “Oh, Xena! Thank you!”

Xena finally held me at arms length so she could finish. “But he must be the only one who knows,” she said firmly. “I mean it.”

“Yes, of course. I won’t tell anyone. I promise.” I kissed her again.

“We will have to maintain a strictly professional relationship in public, and it would be best if you keep your own quarters.”

“What about your servants? They’ll work out what’s going on between us, if they haven’t already.”

“Then I’ll just have their tongues cut out,” Xena said sternly.

“You can’t be serious! Are you serious? You’re not serious.” I still couldn’t tell when Xena was joking – only the gleam in her eyes gave her away.

~~~~~

The sun caused the tiny ripples on the carp pond to flicker as it beat down from the cloudless blue sky. It warmed my back like a lover’s touch. I closed my eyes and imagined the warmth of Xena’s hands caressing my bare shoulders. It made my body shiver. Thinking about Xena had that affect on me.

I had escaped to the courtyard to grab a few moments peace before my next meeting. This was not how I envisaged my role in Xena’s court would be – one tiresome meeting after another – but at least some good was coming out it, albeit slower than I would’ve liked.

I heard soft footsteps approaching and opened my eyes to see a servant carrying a pitcher and goblet.

“Ma’am.” The servant bobbed a well-practiced curtsey as she stopped. “Would you like some juice?”

“Yes, thank you, Helena.” I know it wasn’t necessary to thank the servants for performing their duties, but that didn’t stop me expressing my gratitude.

Helena poured the sweet orange liquid into the goblet and handed it to me.

“Thank you,” I said as I accepted it.

“Ma’am,” she replied with a slight uncomfortable tone.

I still wasn’t used to being waited on by servants and being called ‘ma’am’, but it came with the territory.

“Leave the pitcher and I’ll bring it back when I’ve finished.”

“Ma’am!” The poor girl appeared shocked at the suggestion.

“It’s okay, Helena. I can manage.”

“B-but, ma’am… th-the Empress…”

“The Empress, what?”

“The Empress ordered me to bring you the juice, ma’am.”

“And you’ve done that, so what’s the problem? I’ll tell the Empress you performed your duty to perfection.”

“But I can’t let you take it back, ma’am, the Empress would have me flogged.”

I had to bite my lip to prevent a giggle escaping. It could’ve been very amusing if it wasn’t for the apparent distress the servant was feeling. The poor girl was near to tears. “Helena, I can assure you the Empress won’t have you flogged for leaving me to enjoy this juice in peace.”

“But-”

“Okay, I’ll leave the pitcher here for you to collect later, if that makes things better.”

“Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.” She sighed with relief, bobbed another perfect curtsey and scurried away.

I settled back on the bench, sipped the cool drink and tried to enjoy the peace once more. Yet more footsteps disturbed me.

“Have you been upsetting the servants? I just saw one running back into the palace in a state.” Galates stepped into view and tipped his head by way of greeting.

“Oh, you know me. If I haven’t crushed the spirit of at least one servant before lunch I’m grumpy all day.”

Galates rocked back as he laughed.

“What brings the Commander of the Palace Guards into the gardens on this pleasant morning?” I asked as his laughter subsided.

“It’s time for your next meeting.”

I gave a resigned nod and allowed Galates to help me to my feet. The meeting room I was going to use wasn’t particularly stuffy, but after taking a few steps I reached a decision.

“Galates, would you escort Larrius out here, please? I’m sure he’d appreciate holding the meeting outside.”

Galates nodded. “Of course.”

“Oh, and ask Helena to bring a goblet for Larrius. That is, if she’s over the trauma of me thanking her.” We both laughed.

“Anything else?”

“No, that’s it. Oh wait! I’ll need my quill and parchment from the meeting room. And my seal.”

“Quill, parchment and seal, got it.” Galates repeated. Before departing, he quickly added, “and before you say it – ‘you’re welcome’.”

A few minutes later Galates returned with Larrius and a servant in tow. I gestured for Larrius to sit on the bench next to me as the servant poured him a drink and Galates handed me my work tools. Once Larrius was settled, the servant left and Galates retreated to a discreet distance.

“I thought you’d prefer being outdoors after spending so much time inside,” I said to the former dissident.

He allowed himself a forced smile before unrolling the scroll he had brought with him.
After they had served their sentence, I made Larrius and his two friends, the twins Cerne and Malcus, special assistants to the Office of Civilian Affairs. Their job was to act as facilitators for various new social programs and public works.

Cerne had taken the job of overseeing the redevelopment of Corinth that I had started; he was planning schools, hospices, theatres, libraries and a new market place. Raising the money was not going to be easy, but the plans had received Xena’s seal of approval.

Malcus was responsible for the provinces. Xena’s empire extended well beyond Corinth and the entire population fell under my responsibility. Therefore I had sent Malcus to travel to the main cities, for a start, and find out their needs.

Larrius had proposed the idea of a civilian peacekeeping force to maintain law and order among the citizens. Xena was strongly taken with this idea, though I suspect she liked it because it would free up soldiers to protect our borders and expand her empire. Since this was a civilian peacekeeping force, it fell under my authority.

I appointed Larrius to oversee the planning and development of the new Civil Protection Force, however, Xena appointed Lieutenant Darphus to act as its commander. Right from the start, Larrius and Darphus disagreed over the exact role of the Force. Larrius wanted it run as a community-based scheme, whereby one or more officers would be assigned a particular neighbourhood. This would, Larrius claimed, allow the community to effectively protect itself with only the more serious matters being brought to the attention of a superior officer. Darphus, on the other hand, wanted it run from a central command, like a small army ready to move where it was needed and crush any political opposition, criminal activity, or troublemakers in the process.

I liked Larrius’ idea, but I knew Xena would prefer Darphus’ approach. This left me in a bit of a dilemma. As much as Xena said that I could run it as I saw fit, I didn’t want to create any conflict between us – especially considering the recent change in our relationship. I was faced with having to come to some sort of compromise. I wasn’t concerned; after all, I had persuaded Xena to give me a job and to accept my advice. Getting Darphus and Larrius to compromise should’ve been easy compared with that.

“So, Larrius. How are things progressing?” I asked.

“The pilot program here in Corinth is still in the early stages, but every day there’s at least one volunteer willing to join up,” Larrius reported. “Lieutenant Darphus has taken charge of billeting and training the new recruits.”

“That’s good,” I said.

“You know that Darphus wants the officers to carry swords,” Larrius grumbled without preamble.

“Well, it makes sense if they’re dealing with armed robbers,” I responded.

“But that’s only going to be part of their job. Their main job is to help form neighbourhood watches, help resolve disputes peacefully, and watch over their neighbourhoods like a shepherd tends his flock. And to do this, they must gain the trust and cooperation of the citizenry. How can they gain the people’s trust if they carry a weapon?” Larrius asked with a stymied huff. “The Empress is turning my idea into some kind of heavy handed militia.”

“The Empress is doing no such thing!” I didn’t mind a frank exchange of views, but when he criticised Xena, I got defensive. “The Empress has put me in charge and I decide how things are run,” I chided.

Larrius didn’t say another word. I immediately regretted losing my composure like that.

“It’s early days, Larrius, we are going to get things wrong. That’s the whole point of these meetings. You’ve raised your concern over Darphus wanting to arm the officers. I’ll have a word with him and see if we can reach some sort of compromise.”

Larrius ran a hand through his shoulder length red hair, slurped the last of the juice in his cup, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I still don’t trust her. There must be an ulterior motive behind this apparent concern she’s showing for the people.”

His cynicism angered me and I counted to ten before replying. “The Empress has the welfare of her people foremost in her mind, and her support for the Civil Protection Force is proof of that. I had hoped that your time working with me would’ve moderated your opposition to Empress Xena. If you think you can better champion the people’s cause by circulating obscene pictures of the Empress, then be my guest. But the next time you’re caught, I won’t be so lenient!” My ire boiled over again. I should’ve counted higher.

Larrius cringed at my outburst. “Sorry,” he muttered.

“My job is to make sure the people are happy, healthy, and safe and that’s what I’m going to do. I want… no, I need your help, Larrius. So work with me and forget about ulterior motives where none exist.”

An awkward silence fell between us. Eventually he spoke. “Slavery.”

“What about it?” I was a little knocked off centre by his sudden change of topic to something as profound as the issue of slavery.

“Slavery is morally wrong and should be abolished. If you can get the Empress to abolish slavery then I’ll believe that she’s as benevolent as you claim.”

This was something I certainly had thought about, and personally I abhorred slavery. But most landowners as well as Greece’s aristocracy owned slaves. I seriously doubted Xena would want to deal with the political consequences from such sweeping social change while she was planning a war against the Persians. Still, Larrius was right – slavery was morally wrong and should be abolished – and it was something worth pursuing.

“I’ll put the idea to the Empress,” I replied with more confidence than I felt.

~~~~~

After my meeting with Larrius, I headed over to the armoury to speak with Lieutenant Darphus. As I approached the main doors, a soldier was coming out in a hurry and nearly knocked me over. I recognised the soldier as Lucon, the officer who had accosted me at my first meeting with Xena’s senior staff. Xena had him flogged and demoted for his indiscretion. The last I’d seen of him was when we left Larissa. He was part of the garrison left behind. Obviously he’d been transferred to Corinth since then.

“Pardon me, ma’am,” he began until he recognised me. “Oh, it’s you.” He regarded me with a contemptuous look. “What’s your business here?” he challenged.

“I’m looking for Lieutenant Darphus, I was told he was here.”

I made a move to step around Lucon, but he countered it.

“Do you have the authority to enter the armoury? Only senior members of the Empress’ military staff are allowed to enter.” He emphasised the word military as if to suggest that I was somehow less important. “Those are the Empress’ orders, and I wouldn’t want to disobey them. Would I?”

He stepped closer, the smell of the leather and armour barely masked the rank odour of stale sweat.

“What’s going on?”

I looked beyond Lucon to see Darphus coming out of the armoury. Lucon stepped back and stood to attention.

“I was just explaining that she was not allowed to enter the armoury, sir.”

Darphus gave the soldier a stern look. “This is Gabrielle, a senior member of the Empress’ Council of Advisors, you idiot! Report to me after your watch. A week of cleaning out the privies should help you remember.”

“Yes, sir!” Lucon answered smartly. He continued to stand rigidly at attention, not daring to move a muscle or even blink.

“Well, don’t just stand there. Dismissed.” Darphus ordered.

We both watched as Lucon hurried off towards the palace.

“I guess he was just doing his job,” I said. “Anyway, I was looking for you, Lieutenant. We need to discuss the Civil Protection Force.”

Darphus nodded and signalled that I should lead. The Lieutenant looked quite intimidating with his scarred face, but he nearly always had a smile. Other than Galates, Darphus was the only member of Xena’s senior staff that had always treated me like a person. I think he did it initially because it upset Darnell. And the more upset Darnell was, the happier Darphus was. Since my promotion to Advisor, he treated me no differently. He probably still saw me as nothing more than Xena’s servant, but at least there was no opposition to my position, and he always seemed ready to listen.

“What do you want to talk about?” he asked.

“Larrius tells me you want to arm the officers.”

“So?”

“He thinks it’s a bad idea. He wants to build trust between the force and the people, and feels that weapons are a barrier to that.”

Darphus snorted. “You can’t expect someone to defend the people if they can’t defend themselves.”

“I agree. However, I can also see the point Larrius is trying to make.” I stopped walking and turned to face the Lieutenant. He pulled up before walking into me. “What if we compromise? Train the men to use weapons, arm them if the need arises, otherwise they can be unarmed.”

Darphus considered my words and shook his head. “That won’t work. What if an officer needs to confront an armed man?”

“Then we’ll split the force between an armed and an unarmed section. We use unarmed officers when dealing with the public in order to build trust. We use armed officers when confronting a dangerous situation.”

“So, you are suggesting officers go unarmed and if a dangerous situation comes up they what – run back to get their weapons? The Empress would never agree. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from Empress Xena it is you never compromise your tactical advantage.”

“Yes, but Empress Xena also knows when it is a tactical advantage to use words instead of weapons,” I reminded him. I could tell Darphus remained unconvinced, so I tried a different tack. “Look, the idea for this force came from Larrius. He needs to see it working his way, otherwise he might walk away and start stirring up trouble.”

“If he does, I’ll have him arrested by his own civil officers before he utters a word of dissent!” Darphus sneered.

I sighed. Darphus was just as opinionated as Larrius and he was making me earn my pay. “Let’s try my compromise first. If it doesn’t work, Larrius will see that, and then we can try it your way.”

Darphus frowned and then said, “I still think you’re making a mistake, but you’re the boss. If that’s the way you want to play it, that’s the way we’ll do it.”

“And I appreciate that, Lieutenant. I do value your opinion.”

“Yeah,” he said without conviction. “Is that all?”

I nodded. “For now.”

Darphus turned on his heel and walked back to the armoury.

~~~~~

“This is cold,” muttered Xena, looking at her plate. She looked up at me. “Is yours cold, Gabrielle?”

I poked at the meal in front of me with a fork, skewered a carrot and put it in my mouth. “It could be hotter,” I observed after swallowing it.

“Well, I will have that chef flogged if he ever serves me cold food like this again.”

“Uh, sweetheart,” I said.

“Yes?” she replied.

“The food wasn’t cold when it was served – half an hour ago!”

“Oh. Right.” A knowing smile spread across Xena’s face as she remembered why the food was left to get cold.

We finished the rest of our meal without further comment or complaint, but a lot of smiling.

“By the way, thank you for thinking of me this morning.”

Xena barely looked up from her plate. “Huh?”

“Sending Helena out with the juice.”

I swear Xena almost blushed, but she recovered quickly. “It is my job to order people about.”

I reached out for Xena’s hand and said, “Still it was very thoughtful and much appreciated.”

She gave my hand a gentle squeeze and then went back to eating.

We ate the rest of our meal with only a smattering of small talk. It was an unwritten rule that we would wait until after the meal before any serious conversation took place.

When the table had been cleared and the last of the servants had left, Xena settled onto the couch with a glass of port. I sat down next to her with a glass of wine. Xena waited until I was settled before putting an arm around me and pulling me closer.

“How is your Civil Protection Force coming along?” she asked.

“Fine. We should get the first officers on the street in a few days.”

“And how is Darphus doing?”

I considered telling Xena about the disagreement Darphus had over the direction the force was taking. However, it was only a minor a thing and I wanted to work it out myself. I didn’t want to be seen as running to the Empress every time there was any difficulty. I wanted to prove to everyone that I was a capable administrator.

“He’s doing a good a job,” I said. “We’re still finding out how to work with each other, but it’s going okay.”

“Good. If you do have any problems, tell me. Darphus is a good fighter, but I am not convinced about his ability to command. I assigned him to the Civil Protection Force to see how he handles it. If he does a good job, I will consider promoting him. But don’t tell him. I don’t want him over trying in order to impress.”

“I won’t,” I replied. I waited until Xena had drunk her first after-dinner port before broaching another topic.

“Xena,” I began sweetly. When Xena looked up from her second cup of port, I continued. “There is something important I need to discuss with you.”

“Uh, oh. I recognise that tone. How much is it going to cost me?”

“No, this is something different,” I replied.

Xena could see I was being earnest, and so she sat up attentively. “Yes? What is it?”

“What do you think about abolishing slavery?”

“What?”

“Slavery – would you consider abolishing it?”

I left the statement standing alone and waited for Xena’s reaction.

“Why?” The question was delivered simply.

“Because people shouldn’t be denied freedom for being born into the wrong family. No one should be able to own another person. It’s just not right.”

“What you are asking is not something I can just snap my fingers and have done. People have owned slaves for generations. They are not going to want to give them up just like that. Besides, most slaves count themselves fortunate: at least they get two meals a day and somewhere warm and dry to sleep.”

“No one should have to sell their children into slavery just to put bread on the table. Everyone deserves the freedom to choose their own destiny. Slaves have no choice but to serve at their master’s pleasure.”

“You are talking about doing away with an institution upon which our society was built. How will the patricians manage without slaves to run their households or work their farms?”

“They can start by hiring their former slaves to do those jobs and pay them a liveable wage,” I offered.

Xena put her port down and contemplated the idea for a few moments before replying. “It’s not that simple,” she explained without condescension. “The money to pay them has to come from somewhere.” Xena paused again and then said, “To abolish slavery outright tomorrow is impossible, but it might be possible to do it gradually.”

I was stunned! I was certain Xena would dismiss the idea outright. That she would even consider the possibility was more than I had hoped for. “How do you propose to do that?” I asked.

“Anyone born in my Empire will be free born, even if they are born of slaves. That right may be taken away if they commit a crime or fall into debt. The trade in slaves will be brought under strict guidelines to ensure that they are treated fairly. No more raiding villages for slaves. No mass transportation of slaves. No chains. No beatings. Once the number of slaves starts to decrease we can increase their rights. Eventually it will become easier to abolish it outright without causing economic upheaval.”

I was very impressed and proud of my love that she would put the welfare of the people before the status quo, but to reel off that little speech after I introduced the subject out of the blue was a bit suspicious. “You came up with all that right now?”

Xena offered me a reflective smile. “I too came from humble beginnings and have seen families and villages torn apart by warlords and slave traders. So I had given the matter some thought before you mentioned it this evening. It’s just that I have had other priorities.”

“But you’ll consider it?” I asked.

“I will do better than that. I will issue an edict as soon as possible. Will you help me draft the language?”

“Yes, of course!” I put my arms around her waist and gave her a grateful hug. “I love you.”

“I’m not just doing it for you. Though that is a good reason.”

I gave Xena a gentle nudge. “You’re supposed to reply with, ‘I love you, too’.”

“You know that. I don’t have to keep saying it.”

I let my arms fall, a little disappointed that Xena was still guarded about sharing her feelings. “Yes, but sometimes I need to hear it.”

“I know.” Xena looked away. “All this is still a bit strange to me. I don’t mean to be unfeeling, it is just that I am finding… what I mean is…” She threw her hands up. “I don’t know what I mean.”

“It’s okay.” I reached for her nearest hand and pulled it to my cheek. “It’s all new to me, too. And you’re not unfeeling, never think that.”

Xena cupped my cheek in the palm of her hand and gazed lovingly into my eyes. “What I said about keeping us a secret – it is not because I don’t love you. It’s because I do.” Xena looked at me with a seriousness I’d never seen before. “I am a target for my enemies; I can live with that. But if they know about you, about us, then you will become a target as well, and that I could never live with.”

“I understand,” I assured her. I didn’t like it, but I understood.

“That’s my girl. Now, that brings me to the next subject. I am assigning you a bodyg-”

“No,” I interrupted. The topic had come up several times since we came to Corinth. Each time I had objected and Xena had relented. Each time, however, she had taken a little more persuading.

“Xena, we’ve been through all this before. I can’t affectively do my job if I have a squad of soldiers surrounding me everywhere I go.”

“But, Gabrielle. No matter-”

“Xe-”

“Let me finish!” Xena exclaimed in her ‘severe imperial tone’. It was what I called the tone she used when her patience was wearing thin and the other person had better agree with her or find themselves on the sharp end of her temper.

I fell silent immediately, not because I feared she would lash out at me, but because she felt strongly enough about this to use that tone.

Xena took a deep breath to cleanse away her ire before continuing. “No matter how discreet we try to be, our relationship will eventually become public knowledge. As you pointed out, the servants aren’t blind and there are spies everywhere. It is only a matter of time before word gets out, so it is better that we have seen to every contingency before that happens. And since I cannot be with you every moment of the day, I must take precautions to assure your safety.”

I tried once more to argue the point. “None of your other advisors have bodyguards. If you assign one to me, wouldn’t it draw unnecessary attention towards me? And if that were the case, wouldn’t it take more than one bodyguard to protect me? How many bodyguards would it take to make me safe – two? Ten? One hundred? Is that what you want?” It was a tenuous argument, and I felt awful for using it, but there were already too many restrictions on what I could say and what I could do as it was.

“No.” Xena reluctantly agreed once more. “No, I don’t.” Xena cast her eyes downward at her hand as her fingers caressed my leg in ever decreasing circles just above the knee. In a wistful whisper she said, “You mean more than anything else to me, Gabrielle, and I am not prepared to lose you.”

I captured her gaze and said, “You’re never going to lose me, I promise.”

Chapter 2
~~~~~~~~~~

A large oak table dominated the council chambers; on it was a new map of the world with Greece at its centre. As I studied it, I thought about how much the map and my life had changed in the past year. A year ago, I was Xena the Conqueror, commanding general of a six thousand-man army and yet I was alone. Then one day, an audacious young village girl with sparkling green eyes and strawberry-blonde hair walked into my camp and boldly declared that she was fated to help me unite Greece. I should have cuffed her and sent her packing, but there was something about Gabrielle that made me want to know her better. She talked me into allowing her to join my army as my personal assistant and soon proved her worth to me. Gabrielle became one of my most trusted advisors, a loyal friend, and so much more. I was not sure when the change occurred. I only know I fell in love with her and found the courage to risk my heart.

~~~~~

As Empress of Greece, I ruled the territory between the eastern shores of the Ionian Sea and the western shores of the Aegean Sea. For lesser mortals, their ambition would have been sated, but I craved more. I knew that one day my empire would stretch west from the islands of Britannia to the islands of Japan in the east. After consolidating my dominion over Greece, I started planning the conquest of Asia Minor and the Persian Empire. Not since Alexander the Great had a Greek emperor ruled the entire peninsula of Anatolia, and I was going to use any means necessary to make that happen.

“The Persians control the lands east of Mysia. We can easily annex the western coastal territories of Lycia, Caria, and Aeolis – here, here, and here.” General Darnell pointed at the map of the Anatolian Peninsula. “Once we establish permanent supply depots there, we’ll move eastward in a three-pronged offensive and engage General Suren’s forces here in the Halys valley in central Anatolia.”

“Excellent,” I said. “But first we will have to secure Amazon Territory in Ionia to safeguard our supply lines.” I pointed to the area around Ephesus on the map. “This might prove problematic.”

“The Amazons? They are no threat. Two battalions are more than enough to deal with them,” Darnell boasted.

“Have you ever fought the Amazons?” I asked with a disapproving tone.

“Well, no,” Darnell admitted.

“The Amazons are formidable when threatened. Their forces, though small, could inflict great damage to ours, and we cannot afford to waste time or resources.”

“With all due respect, Your Highness, the Greek Imperial Army is the best trained, best equipped fighting force in the world,” Darnell countered. “The Amazons are but a few scattered tribes. I’m confident we can conquer all of Ionia within a fortnight.”

“Never underestimate the Amazons’ resolve to defend their homeland, General.”

Darnell grumbled but ceased to debate the issue with me.

After studying the map a while longer, I came up with a strategy. “If we sweep down from Smyrna in the north and up from Miletus in the south, we could engage the Amazons on two fronts and split their defences.”

“Excellent!” Darnell agreed.

“Ahem.” Gabrielle coughed to get my attention. Up until then, she had remained quiet.

“Gabrielle, you have something to contribute?”

“Yes, My Liege. I think-”

“Hold on,” the General protested. “This is a military strategy meeting, not a council meeting. I hardly think it’s appropriate for the Civilian Affairs Advisor to comment. I’m not even sure why she is here,” he added under his breath.

I had hoped after all this time Darnell would have recognised the value of Gabrielle’s contributions and accorded her the respect she was due. Instead, my top military advisor continued to treat my senior civilian advisor as a jumped up scribe. As much as it irritated me, Gabrielle wanted to deal with Darnell in her own way, so I tried not to interfere. It was hard sometimes, though, because little did he know, when he insulted Gabrielle, he was insulting the woman I loved.

I took a deep breath and released it when the urge to knock him across the room had passed. After all, I had not shared that information with Darnell, so how could I fault him?

“She is here because we can benefit from Gabrielle’s intuitive ability to bypass convention for the creative, and we will need to be creative to conquer the Persians.”

Wisely, Darnell left it at that.

“Gabrielle, continue,” I said.

“Thank you, Your Highness. From what I’ve read and the stories I’ve heard, the Amazons are an indomitable warrior race that will fight to the last to maintain their independence from the rule of others. Is it not better to preserve your manpower and resources for your campaign against the Persians rather than being distracted by insurgency to your rear?”

“Hmmm, good point. What do you propose, then?” I asked.

“I propose a treaty with the Amazons,”

“A treaty?” Darnell snorted derisively.

Gabrielle remained poised, refusing to rise to the bait. “Yes, General, a treaty.”

“A treaty, eh? What did you have in mind?” I asked.

“You can’t seriously consider a treaty with them, surely?” Darnell scoffed. He looked past Gabrielle and addressed me.

Unruffled by Darnell’s rancour, Gabrielle elaborated on her idea. “The Amazons would agree to become a protectorate of the Greek Empire and provide support for your military campaign in Asia Minor. In return, they would be allowed to govern their own internal affairs.”

Darnell was not swayed by the argument. “We don’t need a treaty. We have superior forces. We could easily defeat them and take their lands,” the General pointed out. “Besides, the Persians are at their borders, and you know what the Persians do to their prisoners – especially women. They’d be better off surrendering to us than the Persians.”

“We’ll let the Empress decide,” Gabrielle concluded, giving me a self-assured smile.

While my two senior advisors waited for my decision, I contemplated my best course of action; and I didn’t just mean whose advice I would follow. I felt like I was being asked to choose between my most loyal lieutenant and my lover. Normally, I would have gone with Darnell’s advice without hesitation. However, while Gabrielle’s ideas were unorthodox, I had learned to trust her instincts.

“Gabrielle, draft a treaty for the Amazons. I will send an emissary to Ephesus and invite the Queen of the Amazons to come to Corinth.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” Gabrielle replied. She allowed herself a triumphant smile and made sure Darnell saw it.

Darnell was already seething, so I knew he wouldn’t abide Gabrielle’s gloating. Sure enough his jaw tightened as he readied himself to respond.

“This is-” he started.

I cut off his protest. “General, I want you to come up with a contingency plan to conquer Amazon territory should they refuse to sign the treaty.”

“As you command, Empress,” Darnell replied. He relaxed slightly, but I could see he was still annoyed.

When the meeting concluded, Gabrielle left to go work on the treaty. Darnell lingered behind, his face barely concealing the anger he felt. “May I speak freely?” he asked pointedly.

A chiding from my military advisor was unavoidable, so I nodded with a resigned sigh.

The General walked away from the table and stood with his legs slightly apart and hands on his hips. It was a stance he took when he wanted to appear casual but knew he might have to react quickly.

“With all due respect, Your Highness, I am asking you to reconsider your decision. We can’t afford to waste time on this so-called experiment,” he said reprovingly.

“The Amazons could prove very useful. They know the terrain of Ionia and Lydia well. Amazon scouts could save us weeks of reconnaissance.”

“With respect, Empress, we need to concentrate on recruitment and training for the Persian campaign. Negotiating a treaty with the Amazons will be an unnecessary diversion,” Darnell said with deliberate restraint.

“Remember Thessalia?” I asked him. “How many good soldiers on both sides were killed taking Larissa?” My question was more rhetorical so I didn’t wait for him to answer. “One seasoned soldier is worth five new recruits. Think of the ramifications to our campaign against the Persians if our ranks were filled with thousands of battle-hardened veterans instead of raw recruits.”

“If that’s the way you feel, why didn’t you negotiate with the Thessalians?” he argued.

Darnell had a point, but I didn’t want to admit that. I should have taken Gabrielle’s advice and negotiated with the Thessalians for their surrender, but I was an army general bent on conquest, not an empress with an empire to build.

“Because I did not have the time then. I do now,” I replied.

“The Amazons are not worth the effort for the handful of warriors they can provide.” Darnell moved towards the table as if to reinforce his point. “It’s because she suggested it,” Darnell added, putting a derisive inflection on the word ‘she’.

Again, his condescending attitude toward Gabrielle wound me up, but I did not want to lose my temper with him. He was just doing his job as my advisor, and I dare say a friend. Instead, I leaned heavily on the table, focussing on an area of the map and counted to ten until the urge to lash out at him subsided.

“Why do you dislike Gabrielle so much?” I asked quietly.

“I don’t,” he sighed. “I dislike what she does to you. Her influence is causing you to second-guess your own instincts, instincts that have served you well over the past several years. You have built an empire by being ‘Xena the Conqueror’, not ‘Xena the Negotiator’.” Darnell paused as if waiting for a reaction from me. I didn’t give him one and he carried on. “Gabrielle’s ideas, while creative and modestly successful in civic affairs, are not going to help you win battles or conquer new lands. It’s just going to make you look weak to enemies and allies alike. Can’t you see that?”

“You don’t see her as I do, Darnell. Gabrielle has a wisdom that belies her age and a passionate idealism I find refreshing. I have learnt to trust her and she has done nothing to suggest that I should not keep trusting her.”

An awkward silence fell between us. Darnell knew how difficult it was to earn my trust. Was I giving away too much? Was Darnell thinking that the only way Gabrielle could have earned my trust so quickly was if I had fallen for her? I needed to fill the silence before Darnell asked a question I might have to lie to answer.

“She sees the world as it can be, not as it is. And she-” I stopped myself. I was going to say, she sees me as I can be, not as I am, but the last thing I wanted Darnell to think was that I was changing because of Gabrielle. My mind raced to cover my verbal stumble. “And she’s not afraid to do something about it. It is a trait we have in common.”

“But you want different things. You have different agendas.”

“The only agenda Gabrielle has is serving me well and making me happy.” I flinched inwardly at the word ‘happy’. It revealed too much about my feelings for Gabrielle, but the words came out of my mouth before I could stop myself.

Darnell gave no response at first. His eyes narrowed to slits and his jaw clenched tightly shut. A few tension-filled seconds passed and then his mouth slowly relaxed into a wisp of a smile. “Remember that night in Parnassus when you asked me to be your second-in-command?”

I relaxed too and chuckled at the shared memory. “I remember you drank far too much ale. Braextus and I had to carry you back to camp.”

“Do you remember what you said?”

It was a struggle to recall my words, because I had drunk too much ale that night, as well.

My worthy commander reminded me. “You said that I had earned my promotion, but more importantly, I had earned your trust.”

Before I could respond, Darnell unsheathed his sword. By reflex my arm muscles tensed, but I knew this was not an attack.

Darnell flipped the sword around and held out the hilted end. “Here take it. If I no longer have your trust, then I must resign my command.”

I took his sword. There was a slight resistance on his part as he relinquished it, but his countenance remained unchanged.

I took one step towards him. To his credit, he resisted taking a step back.

Slowly, I resheathed his sword and said, “That will not be necessary, General. You still have my trust.”

Darnell stood taller.

“But, you must find a way to get along with Gabrielle. I am not asking you to like her, but recognise that she is a valued advisor and friend.”

“As you wish, Empress. But you can’t allow your feelings for that woman to cloud your judgement or it will surely bring you and your empire down. And I say that as a friend.”

I watched Darnell as he walked away. He had been my loyal second-in-command during my conquest of Greece, and until Gabrielle, Darnell was as close to a friend as I had. Friendship is not something a soldier easily cultivates, because too many comrades fail to return to camp at the end of the day. A soldier must be on guard always, never showing the slightest vulnerability, or your enemy – be it an opposing army or your own emotions – will defeat you.

~~~~~

The Civil Protection Force deployment readiness report lay on my desk. I had picked it up several times during the course of the day. I think I may have read it more than once, but I had no idea what it said. I was too distracted. My mind was on Gabrielle, or to be more honest, my mind overflowed with dire scenarios of dangerous situations she might have got herself into.

I paced to the window and looked out toward the harbour at all the ships back lighted by a brilliant crimson sunset. Gabrielle had left the palace mid-afternoon to inspect the progress of a new school. It was being constructed in one of the poorer neighbourhoods in the city. Since coming to Corinth, Gabrielle had made it her mission to raise the standard of living for the lower classes. Through Gabrielle’s civic improvements programmes, there were fewer areas in Corinth that were run-down and desperate.

Gabrielle had gone with only her assistant, Cerne, as she had done dozens of times before, insisting that having armed guards around her would hinder her ability to be accessible to ‘the people’. This was a noble sentiment, but a foolhardy one. She was no longer a general’s assistant. Gabrielle was now an advisor to the Empress. This put her in a position of power, and that made Gabrielle a target for any low-life with a cause or a grudge. And now that Gabrielle and I were lovers, it wouldn’t be long before rumours spread and enemies plotted.

I had tried to explain the situation to her, but she had rejected my concerns as being overprotective. Though she did say she found it “endearing” that I cared so much.

Gabrielle had broken through the barriers I had built up over the years. Now that she was through, I was both glad and terrified: glad that I was no longer alone; terrified that she would be taken from me. I wanted to keep her by my side all day and night, but she and I had different responsibilities, and that meant we worked separately from time to time.

Finally I heard the guards greeting her outside my private chambers and all my worrying ceased. I quickly composed myself and picked up the report before Gabrielle reached my study.

“I’m back,” she announced as she entered.

“Hmm? Oh right,” I replied, trying to sound nonchalant.

“Did you miss me?”

“Yes,” I answered instinctively.

“Ooh, that’s sweet.” She leaned over and placed a kiss on my cheek. “I bet you’ve been worrying about me this whole time, haven’t you?”

“No. I have been busy.” I indicated the report in my hand.

“Really?” She took the report from my hands. “I think you’ll find it makes more sense if you read it the right way up.” She turned the report around at put it back in my hands.

I gave her an embarrassed smile. “Sometimes you have to consider all the angles,” I offered.

“Nothing’s going to happen to me,” she said. “No one would dare incur your wrath.”

“I thought you didn’t like my violent side.”

She looked away and considered her response. “No. I don’t like your violent side. But I love your strong side – your protective side.” Gabrielle sat in my lap and put her arms around my neck.

I responded by dropping the report, putting my arms around her slender waist, and drawing her close. “And I want to protect you as much as possible. You understand that?”

“Yes, but no one is going to hurt me. Not while I’m under your protection.”

“I can’t protect you when we are not together. That is why you must have a bodygua-”

“No, Xena,” she cut me off. “We’ve talked about this. I don’t want soldiers following me around all day. I need to be approachable. People are not going to talk freely with me if I have a squad of soldiers surrounding me.”

Every time we got to this point in the argument, I would give in. This time was no different.

“All right,” I said softly. “How is the school coming along?”

“It’s finished. A couple of teachers from Athens are coming to start lessons in six days time. I thought we should have some sort of opening ceremony.”

She gave me a pointed look.

“You mean you want me to open it, don’t you?”

She smiled and nodded.

“I think I’m busy.” I lied.

Gabrielle made a tutting noise and shook her head. “Never, ever lie about having an appointment to someone who knows your daily schedule.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied with feigned contrition. “I will be honoured to open the school, Gabrielle. I know how much it means to you.”

“Thank you.” She gave me one of her adorable smiles that crinkled her eyes.

“Now you can do something for me,” I said seriously.

“What?”

“I have some free time tomorrow after my morning meeting with Darnell. Clear your morning calendar and come riding with me.”

“That sounds like fun, but you haven’t taken a day off in weeks. What’s the special occasion?”

“I am going to teach you how to ride a horse.” I knew Gabrielle was a bit nervous around horses, so I wanted to teach her myself.

“Me, ride?” Gabrielle blanched slightly.

“Yes. We can’t have you riding double with me forever, no matter how much we both enjoy it.”

“I’m not very good at this horse thing.”

“Are you questioning my abilities to teach you?”

“No, I’d say you were the very best teacher.” Gabrielle took my hand and urged me out of my chair. A smile spread across my face and her green eyes twinkled with a seductive invitation. “And I could use another lesson,” she said as she led me towards the bedchambers.

~~~~~

The next morning Darnell and I met in the council chambers to discuss logistical preparations for our Persian campaign. I had given some thought to what he and I had discussed the previous day: trust. And even though I had reconfirmed my trust in Darnell, there were some disquieting concerns I had about my commanding General and the Roman Ambassador, Brutus.

“The Persian road network will be far superior to our own,” Darnell commented. “That allows them to reinforce and re-supply a lot faster than we would be able to.”

I hummed in agreement. “So while the main forces are landing in Ionia, have the Third Thracian Infantry march south across the Bosporus Strait, and establish a permanent fortification at the key junction of Nicomedia.”

Darnell nodded. “A good plan, Your Highness.”

“But?” I queried, sensing a note of concern in his voice.

“We can’t move enough men and equipment along existing road systems fast enough to achieve that. Persian spies will be aware of our build up long before we’re ready and they’ll be able to engage us before we are fully deployed.”

My general was right. Persia, like Rome, had an excellent road system, while Greco-Anatole territories in Asia Minor had little more than a meandering network of dirt tracks in comparison.

“What about getting some Roman engineers to supervise the building of roads to make it easier for us?” I ventured the idea to see what Darnell would say. I could have just made it an order, but I was learning that sometimes it paid to ask. I learned this from Gabrielle.

“Ambassador Brutus commented about the state of our roads and suggested the same thing.”

“Did he?” I focussed a stern look at the General. “And you didn’t think to bring that to my attention.”

“I, I,” Darnell floundered for a moment. “He only mentioned it last– um, yesterday. I wasn’t paying that much attention to him at the time. It was only you mentioning it now that made me remember.”

Darnell rushed his explanation and I knew immediately he was not telling me the whole truth.

“Perhaps you could ask the Ambassador if he can recommend anyone the next time you see him.”

My statement appeared to unnerve him, as though he was expecting a stronger response from me. Was there more going on, as I suspected?

Darnell’s discomfiture was interrupted by a knock at the door.

“Enter!”

A guard entered and saluted. “My Liege.”

“Yes? What is it?”

“Ambassador Brutus is here. He’s requesting an audience with you.”

“Then don’t keep him waiting. Send him in.”

The soldier saluted and rushed to comply. I turned to Darnell and gestured for him to clear away the maps from the table. Just as the General picked up the last map there was another knock on the door.

“Enter!”

Ambassador Brutus strode in and gave a deferential bow of his head.

“Ambassador Brutus. It is good to see you, though it is not our regularly scheduled meeting. So what brings you here?” I asked, though I knew perfectly well why he was here.

With the assassination of Julius Caesar, the political landscape of the Greco-Roman world had changed. Pompey was crowned the Roman Empire’s first Emperor. Few people knew, however, that it was I who had orchestrated Caesar’s death and that Pompey was really my puppet. For the time being, allowing Pompey to administer Roman-occupied territories around the Mediterranean suited my purpose. It freed up my forces to take on the Persian Army for control of Asia Minor. But I wanted to remind him who was really in charge.

“I’ve just received word that Emperor Pompey plans a state visit to Corinth. I am to see to the preparations.”

I smiled inwardly. I had sent word to Pompey demanding a visit, and true to form my puppet emperor had made it look like his idea. What his generals thought of him arranging a state visit to see me in the middle of his Gallic campaign, I could only guess at. Hopefully it would not be anything favourable, which is why I demanded to see him at that time. Anything to disrupt his progress and cast doubt on his leadership was a bonus for me. And just to make sure, I sent word for my agents to stir up dissension in Rome while he was here in Corinth. Thus, when the Roman population and army become desperate for a new leader, they will be more than ready to accept me.

“Then see to them,” I instructed the Ambassador.

“Err…” Brutus hesitated.

“What is it?”

“Emperor Pompey has sent a list of demands… um, I mean requests, of what he’d like for his visit.”

I had to admire Pompey; he was almost as much a showman as Caesar was. “And what ‘demands… um, I mean requests’ has Pompey made?”

Brutus squirmed at my mockery of his words. I noticed from the corner of my eye that Darnell was also not overly pleased with it either.

The Ambassador straightened his pose and pulled out a piece of parchment. He cleared his throat and spoke. “The Emperor would like his ship to be escorted into Corinth by your finest warship and for you to greet him at the harbour. He wishes for the population of Corinth to line the roads from the harbour to the palace so that they may witness you and him together – as an affirmation of the friendship that exists between our two great empires. He also wishes to stop at the Agora to address the people, and where he expects to receive a gift to commemorate his visit.”

“A gift!” I laughed. “And what else would Emperor Pompey the Magnus desire?”

“These are only reques-”

“Don’t give me that! What else is on that parchment?”

Brutus recovered his composure. “He, er, um… an official banquet with suitable entertainment. He particularly likes hearing stories of heroic tales. That’s all, Empress.”

“If he wants to make a speech in the Agora, he can. If my citizens wish to line the streets, they can – I am not going to order it. A banquet, fine. Entertainment, fine. I will have to think about the gift. When can I look forward to the pleasure of his company?”

“The Emperor is in Gaul at present, it will take him about two months to get here. He, er… has some business to finish off there first.”

The bastard thought he could set his own timetable for my demand to see him. He was going to regret that. “Very well,” I said. “Make the preparations for the banquet and Pompey’s speech. But send word to your Emperor that I have a busy schedule and that I might be otherwise engaged when he arrives. I hope he won’t mind spending time in Corinth while he waits.”

Brutus squirmed a little, which was my intent. “I shall inform the Emperor, Your Highness.” He nodded and left, presumably to send that communiqué to Pompey.

When I turned back toward Darnell, he was giving me a strange look. “What is wrong?”

“You didn’t seem surprised that Pompey has decided to visit.”

This struck me as odd. Darnell knew my plans for conquering of Rome – that Pompey was merely a puppet ruler.

“I ordered Pompey to visit me in order to disrupt his Gallic campaign. Also, I have plans for my agents to start sowing the seeds of dissent in Rome while he is in Corinth.”

Darnell nodded. “A clever strategy, My Liege.”

“And one I do not want going beyond these walls.”

Darnell stiffened at my reminder not to divulge the information.

“I’ve never betrayed your confidence in the past, and I will never betray it in the future.”

Darnell’s words were so convincing that I believed him – almost.

~~~~~

As a warrior, when I donned my greaves, breastplate, helmet, and sword I felt protected, but those are soul-less objects. When I rode my horse into battle, I was imbued with the raw power of his muscular stride and fierce bravery, and I felt unconquerable – immortal.

Now that I was Empress, I had few opportunities to ride into battle at the head of a large army. I left that to General Darnell and his lieutenants while I tended to policy and politics. So whenever I had the chance, I would go for a long ride on my horse – not to feel unconquerable but to feel liberated.

It was this feeling that I wanted to share with Gabrielle and it was the reason I wanted to teach her how to ride a horse. So after I had met with Darnell and settled a few other issues, I headed off to the stables to see to my horse and prepare him for our ride.

From my horse’s stall, where I was taking the girth down from the saddle and tightening it, I heard familiar voices coming from the other end of the stables. The voices, though muted were easily recognisable as Darnell and Brutus. Instinctively I crouched down, so they were not aware of my presence, and listened.

“She’s losing focus,” said Darnell with frustration.

“Don’t let it trouble you,” replied Brutus. “Whatever happens to her will happen. Her plans are not important. W-”

“They are important,” Darnell interrupted. “Our future depends on her actions.”

There was silence, and then Darnell spoke again.

“It’s that village girl, Gabrielle. She’s wormed her way into a position of power and has got Xena by the balls – so to speak.”

They both chuckled while I silently fumed. Ooh, I so wanted to step out from behind the stall door and see who has got the balls, but I did not give myself away. I wanted to hear what more these two had to say.

Brutus continued, “Gabrielle could be useful to us.”

“How, by undermining me and manipulating Xena? Something has to be done…”

By this point, I had been gripping the beam I had been leaning against so tightly that I felt the wood splinter beneath my finger. A large sliver broke off underneath my thumbnail. I cursed under my breath while I used my teeth to remove the splinter. Unfortunately, that distraction caused me to miss part of the conversation.

“…better,” said Brutus. “You’re too tense. You should take things easy.”

“If only things were easy.”

Their conversation continued in that vein for a few minutes longer before they left the stable area and were out of earshot. This was not the first time I had witnessed Darnell and Brutus off in a corner talking secretively. Their comments about me I could overlook, because Darnell was only carping and Brutus merely offered a sympathetic ear. It was what was said, or was not said, about Gabrielle that troubled me.

Finally, I was able to stand up and stretch my stiffened back muscles. While I finished saddling my horse, I mulled over what I had overheard. What plan were they hatching that I could not see? Had they discovered the truth about my relationship with Gabrielle? Perhaps I was just being paranoid. No, something was up, of that I was certain. And what did Brutus mean by ‘Gabrielle could be useful’ to them? Damn that splinter!

“Xena!”

Gabrielle called for me from outside the stables, but I didn’t answer right away. I was still trying to sort out what I had overheard. When all was said and done, there was no outright talk of betrayal, no plots revealed – nothing to confirm my suspicions about the two of them conspiring against Gabrielle or me.

“Everything okay?” she asked. “You look deep in thought.”

“Yeah, everything’s fine. Ready to go?”

“You bet!” Gabrielle exclaimed. “I had Helena pack us a nice lunch.”

“Sounds good.” I mustered a smile and tried to put Darnell and Brutus out of my mind. I wanted to enjoy my ride with Gabrielle more than I wanted to think about what my general and Rome’s ambassador might be up to. It was only because of Darnell’s past loyalty that I decided to proceed with caution. Anyone else would’ve been on a cross before they could blink.

Chapter 3
~~~~~~~~~~

Some mornings I’d wake up and pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, because I had much more than anyone dared hope for in life. I lived in a splendid palace, had more responsibility and power to do good than I had every thought possible, and I was in love with the Empress of Greece.
Though being in a relationship with the most powerful woman in the known world was a little like riding a stallion: exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. Not that I knew much about riding a horse.

It wasn’t that I disliked horses; they’re beautiful, majestic creatures. It’s just that I never had very good luck with them. When I was a young girl, I had a pony named Timpani. The first time I tried to ride him, he got spooked by the dog and reared up. I fell hard and fractured my pelvis. That’s the kind of luck I’ve had with horses, and that’s why I’d kept away from horseback riding – that was until Xena decided she was going to teach me how to ride a horse.

Maybe it was Xena’s skill as a teacher, or my willingness not to disappoint her, but the lessons became easier and enjoyable. Once Xena was satisfied I had mastered the basics well enough to have my very own horse, she presented me with a fine chestnut gelding. During one of my lessons I had named him Daisy much to Xena’s amusement and bafflement.

I beamed a grateful smile at Xena and took the reins from her. With practiced ease, I climbed into the saddle atop Daisy and patted his long neck while we trotted around the paddock a few times. I pulled Daisy up near Xena and started to dismount, but she stopped me.

“Whoa, stay up there. I’ve got another surprise for you.”

“You have?” I asked.

Xena briefly disappeared into the stables and came out leading her horse, the blonde and white mare I had named Argo, which according to Xena was ‘a more acceptable name for a horse, if a horse had to have a name’.

She mounted up and revealed her next surprise. “We’re taking the day and going for a ride, just the two of us.”

“But what about your planning meetings with General Darnell? And I have a thousand things to do before the Amazons arrive.”

“I had both our schedules cleared.” She winked and added, “I can do that, you know.”

We left the business of the day behind and rode at an easy gait heading west towards the Philus Valley. Xena led us off the main road and along a rocky herding path that meandered up the slope of the Acrocorinth. I had only had a few riding lessons and was a little nervous about staying in the saddle up the hilly terrain. Thankfully Daisy was surefooted.

The sun was overhead when Xena finally came to a stop near a mountain stream. I was grateful for the opportunity to dismount and stretch my legs.

“This is a good place to stop and let the horses rest,” Xena said.

“It’s a good place to stop and let your bedfellow rest,” I groused as I rubbed my tingling backside.

Xena chuckled and came over to me. “Here, allow me.” She drew me to her chest and then reached around and gently massaged my bottom.

As her hands kneaded my cheeks, a more pleasant tingling started. “If you keep that up, you’re going to have to massage more than my backside.”

“That’s the plan,” Xena replied in a sensual whisper. “But first, another surprise.” She headed over to Argo and retrieved a leather bag and wineskin. “A picnic!”

Xena spread out the blanket and we settled down on it with our backs against a cliff face. Xena poured the wine while I laid out a dish of olives, goat cheese, bread and dates. We stretched out on the blanket and enjoyed our picnic in comfortable silence, taking in the magnificent view and relishing the time spent together alone. Of course, I was never one to remain silent for long.

“Xena?”

“Hmm?”

“Do you ever wonder what life would’ve been like if we hadn’t met? That I had never walked into your army camp?”

“I wouldn’t be sitting here having a picnic-”

“Be serious,” I chided her.

“I am being serious, you didn’t let me finish.”

“Sorry, go ahead.”

“What I was going to say was if we had never met, I wouldn’t be sitting here having a picnic and feeling as contented as I do now.”

I beamed. “That’s nice.”

Xena turned towards me, her soft blue eyes meeting my gaze. “If we had never met, I would never have trusted my heart.”

I knew what Xena meant, how hard it was for her to yield control and give herself over to the openness, vulnerability, and trust that Love required. I was so moved it nearly brought me to tears.

Xena cupped my cheek. I closed my eyes, feeling the warmth of her hand penetrate my skin. She leaned in and ever so lightly kissed away a single tear that had trickled down my cheek. Then she gently pressed her lips to mine. I was taken with the lingering taste of salt from my own tear mixed with the sweetness of the dates she had eaten.

“Come, I have something to show you,” Xena said, releasing me.

“You are full of surprises, aren’t you?”

“You have no idea.”

Xena grabbed the blanket, took my hand in hers and guided me along a footpath that led further up the mountain – up beyond the lush grassy fields of wildflowers and scrub trees – until we reached a narrow crevice between a gigantic boulder and the mountainside.

The boulder was so big, we couldn’t see over it. It must’ve cleaved off the mountainside and formed the crevice we were passing through. One could tell by the jagged rocks along the trail that not many had passed this way before us.

When we emerged on the other side of the boulder, we were in a pocket where a massive slab of limestone had broken free and tumbled downhill, leaving a shelf about twelve feet by twelve feet and an overhang above jutting out about eight feet. The sight of the cerulean sky streaked with soft wispy clouds and the vast verdant green carpet below took my breath away.

“Oh, Xena. How did you ever find this place?” I broke away from her and raced over to the ledge to get a better look at the valley below. “Just look at this view!”

“Yes, the view is magnificent, but it’s a long way down if you admire it too closely!” Xena took a firm grip of my hand again and led me away from the edge.

“I thought you were the adventurous type,” I said, teasing her.

“You are all the adventure I want today.” She brought my hand up to her lips, placing a soft and sensual kiss at the crease where my hand and wrist met. As her lips lingered there, it felt like a kiss of sunlight warming my skin.

Much to my disappointment, Xena let go of my hand. “But, first things first. Close your eyes,” she ordered.

“What for?”

“Close your eyes and hold out your hand.”

“Oh no,” I protested.

“Please,” she entreated. “Trust me.”

How could I refuse her? So I closed my eyes and put out my hand.

“Okay, open your eyes.”

I opened my eyes and saw the small package she had placed in my hand. “What is it?” I asked.

“Open it and find out,” Xena replied.

I unwrapped the small rolled up cloth with the enthusiasm of a child opening a solstice gift. My eyes widened when I saw the contents. It was a delicate silver necklace holding a replica of Xena’s sceptre. The pendant was about the length of my thumb, made from pure gold, and topped with a small green gemstone like the one that crowned the full-sized version.

“Oh Xena, it’s beautiful.” Her heartfelt gift nearly brought me to tears, because I understood its deeper meaning – the sentiment and commitment it meant to convey.

“It’s something to remind you that you are the most dear thing in the world to me,” Xena explained.

“I love it.” I handed her the necklace and turned around. “Would you mind?” I asked.

“Sure.” Xena draped the necklace around my neck and secured it in the back.

I turned around so Xena could see the necklace on me. She looked pleased, which pleased me greatly, however, I felt slightly conflicted as well.

“Aren’t you worried about what people might say if they see me wearing it?”

“No, I had the silversmith make the necklace long enough to ensure the pendant hangs out of sight when you wear it.”

As if to test it, I tugged at my blouse and let the necklace fall between my bosoms. I put my hand over the place where the well-concealed pendant came to rest. “I will wear it close to my heart always.” Xena seemed very touched by that. I gave her a grateful kiss. “Thank you.”

“For what?” she asked.

“For the necklace, for the picnic, the day together,” I replied.

“Well, it’s not over yet,” she said.

Xena first laid out the blanket, and then she drew me to her. She pressed her lips to mine in a soft lingering kiss, inviting my lips to part with just the barest suggestion of her tongue. It sent a pleasant shiver in all directions, which made me want to deepen the kiss, to touch every part of her – her lips, her tongue, her neck, her breasts. Soon the air between us was thick with urgency.

We fumbled with our clothes and hurriedly tossed them aside. I clasped the pendant in my hand, holding it out of the way, as Xena lowered herself on top of me. I loved the way it felt to have her silky skin brush against mine as she made a slow descent – her lips, her teeth, her tongue, roaming everywhere. The coolness of the mountain air and her warm exhalations converged and confounded my senses as her playful tongue parted the silken folds shielding my most intimate parts – circling, flicking, teasing the hooded pearl and stirring my deepest desire to feel connected and filled with her love.

When she entered me, it felt like a lightning strike finding the path of least resistance, sparking an intense longing at my very core. At that moment, the whole world narrowed to a pinpoint, where no sound was heard, no scent inhaled – nothing existed except us in this private refuge, with only the clouds to witness our joining.

Slowly Xena withdrew, leaving an emptiness that went much deeper than her touch could reach. But she did not forsake me for long. The long shaft of her fingers filled me, and the constricting muscles within my vagina clung tightly to their salvation.

With staccato gasps, I encouraged her to stroke me faster, harder – willing my body to dash headlong over the precipice, but over and over Xena brought me to the very edge, only to snatch me away at the last moment. When I thought I couldn’t take anymore of her sweet torment, Xena let me go and my insides erupted with such explosive force that I gripped Xena’s back to keep myself grounded to the earth.

When I could finally speak, I tried explaining how incredible she had made me feel. “I’m sure I felt the earth move.”

“So did I, but it wasn’t me,” Xena replied. She looked more distracted than pleased.

“Huh?” That wasn’t the response I expected.

Xena jumped to her feet.

“Xena?”

Suddenly there was a booming crash, like a deafening clap of thunder directly overhead. I felt the once solid ground beneath my body heave and roll like angry waves during a winter squall. Before I could react, Xena scooped me up into her arms and leapt to the relative safety behind the boulder.

After what seemed an eon, the rumbling stopped, Xena slowly unwrapped her arms from around me.

I looked around at our surroundings especially at the place where we had been lying only moments before. It was littered with rocks and debris that had fallen from the hilltop above us.

“By the gods, Xena. If we had been… if you hadn’t…”

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“I’m fine. Are you okay?”

“Yep, fine.”

The clipped way she responded sent off a warning in my head. “No you aren’t, you’re hurt.”

“It’s nothing. I’ll be fine,” she insisted.

“Don’t go all heroic on me, Xena. If you’re hurt, tell me.”

“It’s nothing. I bumped my shoulder when we landed.”

“Let me see.” My eyes took in the sight of my lover’s naked body with deep concern. Thankfully she wasn’t bleeding badly, but her left shoulder was scraped and bruised. I gently touched the area and was rewarded with a hiss from Xena.

“It’s more than a ‘bump’, Xena.”

“Don’t look so worried. I’ve done worse falling off of tavern stools.” Xena gave me a reassuring wink. “Come on, let’s try and find our clothes and the horses and get away from here before the aftershocks send more of the hillside down on top of us.”

~~~~~

With all the fallen branches and boulders blocking the road, it was late afternoon and we were still making our way down the mountain. Off to the north I noticed a large plume of black-grey smoke rising from the valley below. I pointed it out to Xena.

She shrugged her good shoulder. “Someone is burning something, that’s all.”

“You don’t get that much smoke from a fire in someone’s cottage.”

“I’m sure the villagers have things well in hand. Besides, we are long overdue, and if we’re not back by nightfall, Galates will mobilise the entire Imperial Guard!”

“But Xena, people could’ve been hurt in the earthquake. They may need help.”

Xena acquiesced. “All right, we’ll go and see if they need help.” She kicked her horse into a hurried canter and headed towards the smoke. I followed closely behind trying to remember all the lessons Xena had taught me, especially how to keep from falling out of my saddle.

When we reached the village centre, I was shocked at the devastation. Villagers were frantically battling the blaze, trying to save the grain store, already engulfed in flames, before the fire spread to the stables.

A medium sized man with a mess of long brown hair detached himself from the group as we came to a halt.

“Thank you friends. We can use all the help we can get,” he called.

We dismounted and approached him.

“Grab a bucket. The river is over there.” He pointed at the watercourse.

Xena stiffened. I knew she was not used to being ordered about by a mere peasant.

I put a hand on her back. “Let’s help put the fire out,” I said gently. “That’s the most important thing.”

“Hurry!” the man barked and returned to directing the fire fighting.

Xena didn’t move and her annoyance flared anew. “I will not tolerate such disrespect,” she growled.

“I’m sure he meant no disrespect,” I replied. “He doesn’t recognise who you are. I mean look at us!” I pointed out our tattered clothing and dirty faces.

Xena’s fiery temper died down once she realised how scruffy the two of us must’ve seemed. She grabbed a bucket and headed for the river.

It took the better part of two hours to finally extinguish all the fires. By then what buildings the earthquake hadn’t destroyed were a steaming pile of ashes.

Xena walked slowly towards me and dropped her bucket on the ground. A smile curled her lips.

“What are you smiling at?” I asked.

“I was thinking how incredibly sexy you look with your hair and face all covered in soot.”

“Yeah? You don’t look so bad yourself.”

Her smile immediately disappeared, when the man, who had met us when we arrived, approached Xena from behind and clapped her on the back. I thought surely he was a dead man as anger sparked in Xena’s eyes. I gave her a pleading look not to hurt him just before she wheeled around.

Oblivious to the new danger he was facing, the man reached for Xena’s forearm as if to shake it, but I quickly intercepted his hand. He very nearly shook my arm out of its socket with his enthusiasm, “Thank you so much for your help. My name’s Eryx, I’m the mayor of Philus. I didn’t catch your names.”

“My name? My name is Xena,” Xena replied. “Perhaps you have heard of me?” Her serpentine tone chilled my blood. It was like a cobra rising slowly and unfurling its hood, waiting for the moment to strike.

“Xena?” Judging from Eryx’s oblivious expression, he still didn’t realise just how dangerous was his predicament.

“Your Highness,” I said trying to distract her attention away from Eryx, “It’s been a very long day. Perhaps you’d like to freshen up before we return to the palace.”

Xena finally looked away from Eryx and fixed her gaze on me. The venom drained from here eyes. “Yes. Meet me by the horses.” With that, Xena walked away, saying nothing to the mayor.

“As you command, Your Highness.” I made a show of bowing as Xena walked away.

Eryx’s eyes widened and his soot-covered face turned ash-white. “You mean that was Empress Xena? I had no idea.” He started to follow Xena. “I must beg forgiveness.”

I took Eryx’s arm before he could get too far and led him away. “The Empress understands the situation. You were preoccupied with saving your village and didn’t recognise her.”

“Y-yes, that’s it. That’s right!” Eryx said, quickly accepting my explanation. He cast a nervous glance over his shoulder in Xena’s direction. “I meant no disrespect. I was preoccupied with putting out the fire. She understands that. Doesn’t she?”

“Yes she does. However, it would be better if you didn’t try to talk to her at the moment. She’s tired and she has had a very long day. It’s best to just leave her alone.”

“Oh, yes, yes,” Eryx nodded frantically. “I quite agree. And please tell her that I… the whole village, we are extremely grateful and honoured. And to show our gratitude, we promise to pay extra taxes this year.”

I cringed inwardly at his words. His village was ruined and needed more money to rebuild than they could afford. Yet he was ready to pay more to spare Xena’s wrath.

“That won’t be necessary,” I told him. “You’ve lost all your stored grain and need to rebuild your village. Empress Xena will waive your taxes this year so you can rebuild.”

“She will?” asked a bewildered Eryx.

I was not looking forward to Xena’s reaction when I told her, but I was caught up in the moment. “Yes. In fact she’ll cover any shortfall from the loss of revenue while you rebuild. In the meantime there’s not enough shelter here for all of you tonight. I suggest you send some people, particularly those that need medical treatment, up to Corinth. They can stay there until their homes are rebuilt.”

“Oh, we can’t afford to pay for accommodation in Corinth.”

“That won’t be a problem. When you arrive, come to the palace and ask for me. My name is Gabrielle. I’ll have somewhere for you to stay, free of charge.”

Eryx grabbed my hand and shook it briskly. “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

“Not at all. And I’ll organise a work crew to come back here to help with the clean up and rebuilding.”

“You can do all that?”

“Yes, I’m the Empress’ Advisor for Civilian Affairs. It’s my job to care for her citizens as she would wish it.”

“I…thank you. I-I mean we hear all sorts of tales about ‘Xena the Conqueror’,” he whispered conspiratorially.

“Don’t believe everything you hear,” I informed him. “The Empress has her people’s best interest at heart.”

“Well, please thank the Empress for me. I can’t wait to tell the others what a kind and generous sovereign Empress Xena really is!”

With that, Eryx left to tell his villagers the news and I went to find the Empress before any more grateful villagers wanted to shake her hand.

Xena was at the village well washing the soot and grime of the day from her face. She looked up as I approached.

“Your Highness,” I paused to check if we could be heard, there wasn’t anyone within earshot, so I whispered.

“I said the villagers without shelter should go to Corinth. We can put them up in the barracks or the servants’ quarters until they can return,” I informed her.

“Should we wait and escort them ourselves?” Xena asked.

“If you think that’s necessary,” I replied. “Since your crackdown on roving bands of raiders the roads between here and Corinth are safe, so they shouldn’t be in any danger.”

“Then we will leave them to it.”

“That’s fine.” I nodded in acceptance. “That was good by the way.”

“What was?”

“Showing your caring side like that.”

“It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be,” Xena said with an impish smile, “but don’t get used to it.”

I looked proudly at my love. I knew she didn’t like dealing with people, but I knew deep down she cared for them. She was just reticent about showing it. This small step was one in the right direction. I was determined to make her people love her as much as I did.

~~~~~

The next morning the palace bustled with activity. Servants scurried about getting the palace ready for the arrival of the Queen of the Amazons.

Since a treaty with the Amazons was my idea, Xena appointed me ‘Special Ambassador’ in charge of the treaty negotiations as well as overseeing the arrangements for the Amazons’ visit. This was a daunting task considering I knew precious little about the Amazons or how to negotiate a treaty. However, I wasn’t one to shy away from a challenge.

There was a lot riding on the success of this treaty: my credibility as a senior advisor to the Empress for a start. General Darnell would never let me live it down if the treaty failed, and Xena would be hard-pressed to take my advice over his ever again. More importantly, if a treaty with the Amazons failed, Darnell would invade Amazon territory and hundreds of Greek soldiers and Amazon warriors would die.

I saw to a few last minute details, and then I went upstairs to my chambers and got ready for the welcoming festivities. Since I was representing Xena in these negotiations, I was anxious to make a good first impression, so I had a new outfit made just for the occasion. It was a simple sleeveless tunic the same colour green as fresh spring grass, with delicate gold vines entwining it. Before leaving my room I put on the pendant Xena had given me – a tiny replica of her sceptre. I tucked it inside my tunic where it nestled near my heart.

When it was time for the Amazons to arrive, I left my rooms and walked towards the main staircase. I was expecting to meet Xena there and share a few private moments before the diplomacy got underway. And to be honest, I needed a few words of encouragement.

I was disappointed not to find Xena at the top of the stairs waiting for me. Instead, General Darnell and Ambassador Brutus were having a quiet conversation at the bottom. Darnell had his back to me, but Brutus saw me. The Ambassador nodded his head in my direction and Darnell turned to face me. General Darnell was the last person I wanted to see. They had seen me, however, so there was no retreating. I steeled myself for an inevitable confrontation and confidently descended the staircase.

The General touched Brutus on the arm, excused himself, and intercepted me before I reached the bottom step. As a result, I had the uncomfortable experience of being face to face with my daunting political rival. I was close enough to see his pupils constrict and the irises turn from a warm brown to a burnt umber colour as Darnell’s mood darkened. Brutus excused himself and beat a hasty retreat.

The General began without preamble. “What in Hades’ Realm do you think you’re doing billeting those peasants in the palace garrison’s barracks?”

A sudden rush of adrenalin jolted my chest as once again Darnell was verbally accosting me. I swallowed and cleared my throat before answering. “There was an earthquake yesterday and a subsequent fire destroyed their entire village. They had nowhere else to stay.”

“That’s their problem. I’m not having the efficiency of this military installation disrupted because of another one of your do-gooder missions!”

“I cleared it with the Commander of the Palace Guards.”

“And I am Galates’ superior officer. You didn’t clear it with me.”

“That wasn’t necessary.” I started to move around him, but he blocked my way.

“Not necessary?” he asked, his tone became more menacing. “I warned you before that you’re out of your depth. I’m not going to be pushed around by a jumped up milkmaid. So you get those peasants out of there right now.”

Darnell was beginning to scare me, but my mouth got ahead of my brain. “Or what?” I heard myself ask.

“Or I’ll throw them out of there myself!” He snarled.

“The Empress wouldn’t like that.”

“Oh, I suppose you’re going to tell me it was her idea,” Darnell said sarcastically. Through gritted teeth he continued, “I’m onto you, missy. The Empress might be taken with your charms, but you’re not fooling me.” The General leaned in as close as he could without touching me “One day, she’s going to see who you really are. You are a plague, a poison infecting her, making her weak.” He whispered menacingly, “And I just may have the cure.”

“Is there a problem?”

Darnell and I both jumped in surprise at Xena’s voice suddenly coming from the landing above us.

My attention immediately swung from Darnell. I became mesmerised by the sight my love in all her finest military regalia.

She wore a skirt and tunic made of the finest Egyptian linen. The outfit was primarily a regal blue and garnet red bordered with embroidered piping made of spun gold. Her armour was made of leather dyed blue with red and gold ornamentation. The blue brought out the richness in her striking blue eyes. Her forehead was crowned with a red-plumed golden helmet. Resting on her left forearm was her sceptre, the symbol of her position and power. If it was Xena’s intention to make a statement to the Amazons, then it was very effective.

Looking at her standing there, no one could doubt that being Empress of Greece was truly Xena’s destiny. She wore her royalty as comfortably as I wore a cloak. It was as though she had been born into nobility rather than forging it through sweat and blood.

The Empress slowly descended the staircase. Both Darnell and I greeted her with a deep and reverent bow.

“No, Your Highness, no problem,” I replied collectedly. “General Darnell and I were just discussing the villagers and how long they would be staying in the barracks.”

Darnell cast me a sideways glance before addressing Xena. “I should’ve been consulted before-”

Xena held up a hand to silence him. “I hardly think I need to consult you before inviting guests to stay in my palace, do you General?” Xena spoke in a neutral voice, but her message was clear.

Darnell replied with equal civility. “No, Your Highness. But wouldn’t your ‘guests’ be more comfortable in the servants’ quarters?”

“No. The soldiers are used to bivouacking, so it is not putting them out. Besides, it’s only for a few nights. Now, if there are no other decisions of mine you’d like me to explain to you, General, you may go ahead and take your place for welcoming ceremony. On the left side, General.”

Darnell opened his mouth to speak, but prudently held his tongue. He saluted curtly, executed an about-face, and headed towards the west portico – still seething, no doubt.

As I watched the General walk away, I couldn’t help but feel a bit like a rabbit saved from the lion’s mouth by the talons of the hawk.

“Thank you for once again taking my side with Darnell. I’m not sure it’s such a good idea to goad him though. He hates me enough already; and to be honest, he scares me a little.” I didn’t want to tell her what he really said to me, that I was like a poison making Xena sick and weak.

“I know you haven’t won Darnell over as easily as you have me,” she said with a subtle smile.

“I’m not sure I’ll ever win him over. He doesn’t hold me in very high regard.”

“Darnell has led a soldier’s life, a life of order and certainty. Your rather unorthodox ideas challenge his more conventional approach,” Xena explained, “but give it time, you will.” Xena put a reassuring hand on the small of my back.

“I hope so, for all our sakes. By the way, can I say how incredible you look?”

“So do you,” Xena replied.

“Thanks.”

There was a pause and affectionate glance while we shared one last private moment before what we knew would be several days of tough negotiations.

Xena finally broke the sexual tension. “Are you ready to meet the Amazons?”

“Yes.”

“Would you do me a favour, Gabrielle?”

“Of course.”

“Greet them for me. I won’t be too long, but there is some business I need to take care of first.”

“What business is that?” I tried to sound casual, hoping to mask a twinge of anxiety her words caused. Was she thinking of going after Darnell and having it out with him? I wondered.

“I need to see a man about a horse.”

I dipped my head and stifled the urge to laugh at myself for jumping to the wrong conclusion. “We could always wait for you to finish.”

“No, we cannot have the Queen of the Amazons being kept waiting on the front steps while the Empress of Greece has an imperial pee. It might cause an international incident,” she said with a mischievous gleam.

~~~~~

As I waited for our honoured guests to arrive, I thought back to when I was young and the tales I had heard about the Amazons. The old men of my village talked about the Amazons’ legendary fighting skills and bragged how in their day, they single-handedly saved their village from the fearsome she-demons. And mothers would frighten their young daughters by saying the Amazons would come and take them away if they didn’t behave. One of my dreams was for them to steal me, to take me away from Potidaea and make me one of them. The Fates had other plans for me.

The Amazon delegation of five warriors entered through the west Portico in a loose formation, their hands gripped firmly on their weapons. Two columns of Imperial Palace Guards lined the route from the palace ramparts to the main steps.

Their dress was simple and functional. There was none of the elaborate armour worn by the Romans or the Greeks. They wore short leather skirts and tops, greaves, wrist and arm protection, and boots. The only splash of colour was on the masks they wore. The masks themselves were very ornate in comparison to their clothing. They were fashioned like the face of a wild bird-like creature right out of one’s nightmare, with sharp beaks, huge eyes, and horns. Each was adorned with plumage and raffia. And upon closer inspection, I noticed that each mask was unique – no two alike.

Even with their masks pulled over their faces, it wasn’t hard for me to tell which one was their queen. She was the one standing in the middle of the formation. Her mask was the most elaborate of them all, with vibrantly hued yellow, red, and green plumage.

I bowed respectfully and greeted them, “Your Highness, on behalf of Empress Xena, welcome to Corinth. We hope your journey was uneventful.” Not being able to see their faces was disconcerting, but I continued my greeting. “My name is Gabrielle. I am the Empress’ Civilian Affairs Adv-”

One of the Amazons, who stood at the head of the group, pulled up her mask and retorted, “The Queen of the Amazons comes to Corinth at the request of the Empress, and she sends a glorified scribe to welcome us? This is an insult!”

Part of me wanted to defend myself – after all, I was no low-level official, I was a trusted advisor to Empress Xena. And so much more, I thought, but I couldn’t very well say to the Amazon Queen that she was talking to the Empress’ lover. I swallowed my indignation.

Ignoring the tall, curly blonde haired woman who was so put out, I continued my welcoming speech. “The Empress was unavoidably detained, but she instructed me to see to your comfort. If you would follow me, you may wait in the throne room. We ha-”

“Wait? We’ve been travelling a long time. Why are we being made to wait?” Again the blonde Amazon cut me off with a retort.

“Ephiny.” A smaller, more full-figured Amazon stepped out from behind the stone-face blonde and removed her mask. The taller blonde stepped back but kept her up her menacing glare. “You must forgive Ephiny, she’s a bit – overprotective,” she said to me.

This Amazon had flaming red hair and a pleasant smile. “I am Terreis, Queen of the Amazons. My second-in-command, Ephiny, you’ve already met,” she said. Terreis gave a nod and the others complied by taking off their masks.

I felt like such an idiot. My first diplomatic assignment and I insulted our guest, Queen Terreis, and no doubt the entire Amazon nation.

Terreis moved away from her Amazon guards and stepped closer to me. She greeted me with a friendly smile. “Thank you for your warm welcome and hospitality, Advisor Gabrielle. Since the Empress has been unavoidably detained, we will wait where ever you say.”

“Very well, Your Highness. Please follow me.”

I escorted the warriors into the throne room. I gestured for a servant to come forward. Ephiny and the other Amazons tensed at my gesture until they were sure that I hadn’t ordered an ambush. “Would you like something to drink while you wait? Water, wine, ale?”

“Water will be fine, thank you,” replied the queen.

I signalled the servant to fetch the water, he returned immediately with a pitcher and another servant held a tray of goblets. The servant poured water into one of the goblets and I handed it to the Queen.

“Your Majesty,” I said as I offered it.

“Thank you,” she said to the servant before taking the proffered goblet. “Thank you,” she said to me.

I was impressed that the Queen had thanked the servant, I knew from experience how rare that was. The servant moved away to serve the other Amazons.

I was about to speak when I felt a strange prickling on the back of my neck. I turned to face the throne and there was Xena, seated on the throne with her sceptre lying casually across her lap. She had somehow slipped in unnoticed.

Queen Terreis smiled with a slight hint of condescension; as if she had witnessed a child perform a particular act that they should’ve outgrown. Xena ignored her.

Xena stood up abruptly and leapt gracefully down the steps and landed in front of Terreis.

“I trust your journey was uneventful and my soldiers who accompanied you from the border behaved themselves?” Xena asked with a less than sincere tone.

I sighed inwardly. Maybe Xena would allow me to take control of the negotiations, but how to suggest it without undermining her authority was going to be difficult. I would have to take it one step at a time.

“You know your men behaved themselves,” replied Terreis. “Otherwise they wouldn’t be in one piece.”

Xena laughed heartily, an act that surprised the Amazons judging by the looks on their faces. “Would you like to sign the treaty now, or later?”

“There are points we need to discuss before I sign.”

Xena nodded. “I thought as much. We can go into the banquet room and talk.” She gestured to the doors at the far end of the throne room. “Go and tell General Darnell that his attendance is required,” she ordered the nearest soldier.

The soldier snapped a salute and started to leave. Before he reached the door Darnell entered. The soldier tried to tell Darnell he was needed, but the General waved his hand to silence him.

“My Liege,” Darnell saluted Xena.

“General Darnell, this is Terreis, Queen of the Amazons.”

Darnell saluted Terreis. The Queen nodded at the General.

“We’re going to have a chat about the treaty,” Xena said to Darnell. “I would like you to join us.”

“As you wish.”

Xena headed towards the council chambers, the Amazons followed and the soldiers followed the Amazons.

“My Liege?” I requested permission to speak.

“Yes?”

“I think it would be less intimidating for our guests if we didn’t have so many of our soldiers with us in the talks. Might I suggest we keep the numbers equal – five of us, five of them?”

Xena considered my words for a few seconds, and then nodded. “You two with us,” she pointed at the two nearest soldiers, “the rest of you back to barracks.”

Xena gestured for her guests to enter the council chambers. She and I held back and waited for everyone else to enter first. I took the moment to collect my thoughts and rein in my emotions. Then it hit me – that same feeling of dread I felt when I rode my horse Daisy for the first time. I realised that the Amazons were here to discuss a treaty because of me. I felt a burst of pride at my achievement and then a clench of dread.

“Come on. It’s just like learning to ride a horse. You have to show them who is boss.” Xena said reassuringly.

“Yeah and when I fall flat on my arse, you’ll know it isn’t me!”

Chapter 4
~~~~~~~~~~

In diplomacy, as in war, success comes from knowing your enemy’s strength and exploiting their weakness. Though the Amazons were not, in the strictest terms, my enemy, they certainly were not allies. Amazons were fiercely independent, suspicious of outsiders, and protective of their territory. Their weakness was their numbers. They were once a great nation, but now the Amazons counted fewer than three thousand warriors among a handful of scattered tribes. The threat of invasion by superior forces, the Persian army or mine, brought the Queen of the Amazons to the negotiating table and that gave me the upper hand.

The Amazons were not ones for a lot of chitchat. At least on that point, we agreed. We had a brief ceremony to welcome them and then got right down to business. The treaty negotiations had got underway by mid-morning. With Darnell and Ephiny determined to argue every point, however, the meeting dragged on well into the afternoon and we were only a quarter of the way through the agenda.

With a hard look and a low gruff voice, Darnell said, “The amount of venison that must be supplied to the imperial army is not negotiable.”

“Then we’re wasting our time,” Ephiny growled back as she all but launched out of her seat.

“What my sister means is,” said Terreis, pausing to cast a subtle glance at Ephiny. Once the quarrelsome blonde sat back in her chair, Terreis continued her explanation. “If we supply that much venison to your troops, it will seriously deplete the herds of deer in Amazon forests and make it very difficult to feed our own people.”

I added nothing to the discourse. I was content to let Darnell and Ephiny continue their verbal thrust and parry.

“We are here to sign the treaty, not to debate every point,” Darnell insisted.

“And why should the Amazons pay for Greek imperialism?” Ephiny countered.

Gabrielle stepped in before tempers boiled over. “We’ve been at it a while. Why don’t we take a short break and have some refreshments?” She signalled for the attendants to refill everyone’s wine goblet.

The Amazon Queen sat forward, contemplatively folded her hands and then spoke. “I must confess when we were approached about a treaty with the Empress of Greece, my advisors were very much against it. ‘After all,’ they said, ‘why would Xena the Conqueror offer a peace treaty?’ But I saw the possibilities in such an agreement, and I was willing to chance coming here. Now that I’ve met with you and your advisors face to face, I know you are sincere and I commend you for this bold initiative-”

“-But,” I interjected, anticipating the ‘but.’

Terreis spoke directly to me across the table. “But…I came here to negotiate a fair and mutually beneficial treaty. I will not sign away my sisters’ birthright. So, if we cannot find a compromise on even this one minor point, then perhaps we should conclude this meeting to reconsider our positions.”

Damn, she is good, I thought. With one amiable swipe, the Amazon Queen had outmanoeuvred me. I could no longer use strong-arm tactics on Terreis after she had just commended me on my sincerity and a ‘bold initiative.’ At that moment, I was beginning to regret not having taken Darnell’s advice and just annexed Ionia, and Amazon territory with it.

Again, Gabrielle spoke up. “Empress, if I may.”

Inwardly, I was pleased to see Gabrielle take charge of the meeting. She was a natural-born diplomat. I was very proud of her, though I didn’t show it, because I had to maintain my game face.

With my nod of approval, Gabrielle proposed a compromise. “Your Highness, the quota of meat has been carefully calculated to sustain the army for three months while supplies are being stockpiled. Perhaps if you were to supplement the venison with fish or other wild game, this would meet the needs of our army without jeopardising your food sources. I’m certain the Empress would be willing to consider it.”

Simultaneously Darnell and Ephiny objected.

“My soldiers need red meat, not fish cakes!” Darnell groused.

“We’re warriors, not fishermen!” Ephiny countered.

It suited my purpose to have them play the antagonists; however, it was plain from the way they were glaring at each other that Darnell and Ephiny were a sword-width away from coming to blows. I did the first thing that came into my head. I pounded my goblet down on the table. The loud clunk made everyone jump.

“It is late,” I declared as I stood up. “We will meet again tomorrow. Come with your proposals and I will consider them. But come prepared to sign the treaty.”

Terreis didn’t seem the least flustered by the tone of the meeting. The Amazon Queen calmly stood up and replied, “Yes, it has been a long day. We should all come tomorrow well-rested and ready to negotiate.”

There was an awkward silence as Terreis and I sized each other up.

Gabrielle chimed in, attempting to lighten the atmosphere in the banquet hall. “Queen Terreis, rooms have been prepared for you and your staff.”

“Thank you, Gabrielle,” Terreis replied cordially, “however, we have set up camp in the woods outside of Corinth.

Gabrielle said, “But you’ve had a long journey and a full day, so you are welcome to stay here in the palace, at least tonight.”

“We appreciate the offer,” Terreis replied, “however, we Amazons are not used to all the luxuries of a fine palace. We prefer to sleep rough out in the forest.”

“Of course whatever makes you most comfortable, Your Highness.” Gabrielle sounded a little disappointed.

“Very well. My Imperial Guards will escort you back to your encampment,” I said.

Terreis regarded me coolly. “That isn’t necessary, I came with my own escort.”

Amazon warriors were fully capable of defending their queen, so I did not insist. “As you wish. I will be expecting you tomorrow then.”

“Yes, I look forward to our next meeting.” Terreis was not looking at me when she said it. She was speaking directly to Gabrielle, as though they were the only two people in the room.

Gabrielle seemed quite taken with Terreis’ charm, which made me all the more annoyed. Ephiny’s back stiffened, and Darnell just looked annoyed but not for the same reason. He was oblivious to the flirtatious undercurrent of the conversation.

Once the Amazons had left, I dismissed everyone else from the room, except for Gabrielle and Darnell. I wanted to have a quick discussion about our first meeting with the Amazon Queen.

“With all due respect, General, what did you think you were doing?” Gabrielle asked with as much restraint as she could.

“What are you talking about?” He feigned ignorance.

“I’m talking about your obstinate refusal to compromise on the meat procurements. The Amazons very nearly walked out on the negotiations!”

“Nonsense. If the Amazons didn’t need this treaty then they wouldn’t be here in the first place.”

Gabrielle didn’t look impressed with his explanation. “I don’t think Queen Terreis is interested in all that. She genuinely wants to make the treaty work for her people.”

“Then she better muzzle her bulldog Ephiny!”

“Are you trying to sabotage the negotiations, General?” Gabrielle challenged Darnell.

“I don’t need to sabotage the negotiations, the Amazons are doing a fine job of that all by themselves!” Darnell was very agitated.

My patience had been worn parchment thin from an entire afternoon of incessant talking and posturing, and their bickering was giving me a headache. “Okay, that is enough – both of you,” I said sternly. “Darnell, you have made it abundantly clear you are not in favour of a treaty, but I have made my decision, so I expect you to support it. And that is ‘not negotiable.'”

“I thought I was supporting it,” he grumbled.

“Yes, yes, I’m sure you thought so,” muttered Gabrielle.

That earned Gabrielle a chiding from me. “When I said both of you, I meant both of you.”

With a cease-fire imposed, I continued. “If we want this treaty on our terms, we must show the Amazons a united front. Is that understood?”

“Yes, Empress,” Gabrielle replied.

“General.”

“As you command, Empress.” Darnell grudgingly agreed.

“Good. Now that’s settled, I would like to propose one more thing.” They both looked at me with wary puzzlement.

“I propose we call it a day and negotiate a little rest and recreation. I have the feeling we are going to need it.”

~~~~~

The next morning, Gabrielle and I were in my private study ploughing through some tedious, but necessary paperwork. The business of the empire didn’t stop because the Amazons were in Corinth to sign a treaty. There was the Persian campaign, of course, and there was Gabrielle’s other pet project: rebuilding the village of Philus after an earthquake and resulting fire had destroyed it.

The troubles of one small village were not a matter of great consequence, but in a moment of weakness I gave Gabrielle permission to have the citizens of Philus quartered here at the palace. So the sooner we helped them rebuild, the sooner things went back to normal.

“I need your seal on these work orders.” Gabrielle placed two parchments on my desk in front of me.

“Aren’t these your responsibility?” I asked. I had granted Gabrielle authority to sign orders that dealt with civil matters.

“With the rebuilding in Corinth there aren’t enough civilian labourers to work in Philus, so we’re drafting some soldiers into helping with the initial clear up and setting up temporary shelters in the village,” Gabrielle explained.

“That’s a good idea.”

“That’s why you thought of it,” she replied with an impish grin.

“Then I guess I better sign them.” I took the parchments, put my signature to them and affixed my imperial seal to the bottom.

“And these supply requisitions.” Gabrielle took the documents I had just signed and shoved a few more in front of me.

I signed those as well, but without much energy. The previous day had been long and wearisome, and Gabrielle and I had got up early to get this paperwork done before the next round of negotiations.

I let out a loud yawn. “Is that it?” I asked.

“Just one more, I promise,” Gabrielle replied.

I looked at her with one eyebrow cocked. “What is it?”

“It’s the funding approval for labour and supplies,” Gabrielle’s tone was almost apologetic.

Just as I was about to sign, a herald came in and announced that Solari, one of the Amazon lieutenants, had brought a message from Queen Terreis.

Timing is everything.

Grateful for the interruption, I told the herald to bring her through immediately. He soon returned with the buxom, dark brown-haired warrior and Lt. Commander Galates.

“Have you brought your queen’s proposals?” I enquired.

“No, Empress,” Solari answered.

“Well, then why are you here?” I asked impatiently.

“My Queen has sent me with an invitation for Advisor Gabrielle to visit the Amazon camp this afternoon,” Solari replied.

I cast a sideways glance at Gabrielle; an eager glint replaced the work-dulled expression in her eyes. Yet, there was something about this invitation that didn’t feel right. What was Terreis up to? I wondered.

“Tell your queen that she is negotiating with me.” My reply was terse and sharp and by the puzzled look on the Amazon’s face, not the response she had expected.

“You misunderstand, Empress,” Solari replied. “My Queen wishes to work on proposed changes with your advisor before formally presenting them to you.”

I was about to send Solari back to her queen with a resounding ‘No!’ when Gabrielle spoke up.

“Your Highness, perhaps I should meet with Queen Terreis and work out the minor points. Think of the time it would save if we didn’t have to debate each point at the negotiating table.”

Once again, it was hard to argue with Gabrielle’s logic. And though I didn’t trust the motive behind the Amazon Queen’s invitation, I had put Gabrielle in charge of the treaty negotiations.

I stood up from behind my desk and looked firmly at Solari. “Very well, but Gabrielle will be escorted by a unit of guards.”

Gabrielle knew better than to argue the point with me in public, but Solari had the temerity to object. “I’m afraid that will not be possible, Empress. Men are not permitted to enter Amazon territory -”

“This is not Amazon territory.” I cut her off sharply. “You are in my empire and my soldiers will go wherever I send them.”

“Queen Terreis suspected you would say something like that,” Solari replied with an annoying smirk. “So she’s willing to allow Advisor Gabrielle to be accompanied by a small female honour guard.”

Gabrielle’s eager green eyes petitioned me to let her go. So against my better judgement, I consented to the visit.

“Very well,” I informed the Amazon. “Tell your queen to expect my advisor this afternoon.”

I turned to Galates. “Commander, escort Solari to the palace gates and arrange an honour guard from our best female soldiers.”

“At once, Empress,” Galates replied.

Galates and Solari had barely left my study when Gabrielle’s restrained excitement burst forth like a volcanic eruption. “Thank you, thank you!” She gave me a big hug and kiss. “I know this is business, but to visit an Amazon camp and see how they live will be so exciting!”

I didn’t have the heart to dampen her enthusiasm. “I am happy that you are happy,” I said with all the sincerity I could muster.

I put my hands on her shoulders to bring her back to earth and added, “Do not forget why you are there and watch yourself.”

“What do you mean?” Gabrielle expression changed from excited to bewildered.

“I do not trust Terreis.”

“Why not? She seemed very gracious and sincere to me,” Gabrielle replied.

“Yeah, that’s why I do not trust her.”

Gabrielle gave me a look to allay any doubts. “Then trust me.”

~~~~~

While Gabrielle was away meeting with Queen Terreis, I went to my private study and tried to focus on other, more pressing business than treaties with Amazons: conquering Asia Minor was top on my list. However, army deployment plans held no interest for me – not when Gabrielle was all I thought about.

She had been gone for what seemed like hours. It left me feeling edgy and unable to settle. I tried to quash my misgivings, but I couldn’t forget, even for a little while, that Gabrielle was in the camp of a potential enemy.

Finally I gave up trying to keep my mind occupied and decided instead to try a different approach. I ordered my servants to draw me a hot bath, hoping the steam would clear my head and ease the tension in my neck and shoulders.

“Your bath is ready, My Liege,” said Helena, the newly promoted head servant of my privy chambers, thanks to Gabrielle.

I grunted an acknowledgement and pushed myself away from my desk, happy to abandon the mundane work and have some time to relax and unwind.

“Is there anything else you desire, My Liege?” Helena inquired.

“No, nothing,” I replied as I left my study.

Helena followed me through the sitting room towards my dressing room and stood a discreet distance away while I undressed.

Wearing only a robe, I came out from behind the dressing screen.

“Shall I attend you, My Liege?” she asked.

“No, I would prefer to be alone.”

“As you desire, My Liege. I shall be nearby, should you need anything.”

I started walking through my bedroom towards the bathing chamber in the next room. But before Helena had reached the door, I quickly turned and added, “Helena, have someone fetch Lieutenant Commander Galates for me.”

“Yes, My Liege,” Helena replied. She bowed and left me to my bath.

As I entered my private bathing chamber, I stopped and my eyes scanned the empty room. I was looking for anything out of place or lurking in the shadows. Not that I needed to worry; my palace was well guarded. Still, my warrior instincts wouldn’t allow me to even walk through my own living quarters without assessing any potential threat and securing my perimeter.

Satisfied that everything was as it should be, I approached the bathing pool, dropped my robe, and stepped into the water with both feet. The bathwater was so exquisitely hot that it hitched my breath – the immediate sensation was not unlike an orgasm: goose flesh, muscles tense, every fibre of my being hypersensitive.

I stood still for several moments until my skin got used to the temperature. It gave me time to take in my surroundings. When I looked around the room, I recalled bits and pieces of a conversation Gabrielle and I had after dinner one evening a few weeks ago.

Gabrielle had broached the subject of redecorating my bathing chamber. I did not understand the need to redecorate, because the room was functional and suited to its purpose. Gabrielle made some comment about me being just as happy bathing in a horse trough. I responded with my usual rapier wit, ‘Oh, yeah?’ or something equally as droll.

She ignored me and continued explaining her redecorating ideas to me. She painted the room so lavishly with her words, how could I say no. Gabrielle immediately set to work having the Dorian style columns painted sky blue with bright yellow on the capitals, the floor painted a deep blue like the ocean, and the walls adorned in richly coloured mosaic tiles, depicting scenes of exotic birds and aquatic life that made their home in and around the Aegean Sea.

Gabrielle had a poet’s sensibility and eye for beauty. And now, as I looked around the room, I saw it through her eyes. The floor tiles were strewn with a garden full of rose petals of the deepest red. A flotilla of lily pads with burning candles floated on the water. Surface ripples reflected the flickering light all around the room. It gave the illusion of being under water swimming with the mosaic fish on the wall above my head.

Gabrielle should be here with me enjoying her vision come to life instead of being away talking about treaties, I lamented.

Finally I settled into the marble bathing pool and allowed the soothing water to wash over my body and drain my mind of any thoughts. As my muscles relaxed, my knees opened slightly and water rushed between my thighs like the incoming tide flowing into a sheltered cove. The movement of my legs caused eddies in the water that lapped at my fleshy folds like a lover’s caress. It had been a while since I felt the need to pleasure myself, but thoughts of Gabrielle flooded my mind and sent a wave of longing right to my clit. My right hand slipped into the water and submerged beneath the surface seeking to satisfy my need. I closed my eyes and imagined Gabrielle sharing this bath with me – her naked skin glistening with water droplets, her blonde hair slicked back, her green eyes turned opalescent from the heat we are generating together in this steaming pool. It was Gabrielle’s hard nipples that my fingertips were pinching. It was Gabrielle’s gasps I heard as my breathing became more laboured. It was Gabrielle’s well-washed slit I was stroking as my fingers found their rhythm. It was her pelvis rocking beneath my hand as my hips started arching upward. It was….

“You sent for me, Empress?” Galates called out as he came through my apartments towards the bathing chamber.

Timing was indeed everything.

I cursed the Galates’ bad timing and quickly removed my hand from below the water. I reached for the goblet of wine and took a long slow swallow – hoping it would clear my voice of that low raspy tone I usually had after such intimate exertion. “Yes, Commander.”

He saluted me and stood at attention, not daring to look anywhere but straight ahead.

“Has Gabrielle returned from the Amazon camp yet?” I knew she hadn’t, because Galates would have sent word as soon as she had reached the gate. That did not stop me asking.

“Not yet, Your Highness. It’s only been a half hour since you, er…inquired after her,” the Lt. Commander tried to tactfully manoeuvre around my increasing impatience. He hastened to add; “I assure Your Highness, I have spotters on all the ramparts. The minute she returns, you will be the first to know.”

My attendants had followed Galates into the room, so there was no resuming my self-gratifying fantasies of Gabrielle. I started to pull myself out of the bath.

Ever the gentleman, Galates averted his eyes while my servants swiftly covered me with a towel. I chuckled inwardly. Modesty is the first casualty in the life of a soldier. Still I thought it was very gallant.

“Permission to speak freely, Your Highness?” Galates asked.

“Permission granted as long as you do not mind me getting dressed.” Just to have a bit of fun with my humble commander, I purposely dropped my towel.

Galates turned redder than the rose petals and did an immediate about face before the towel even hit the floor.

“At ease, Commander. I don’t have anything you have not already seen, I am sure.”

The poor man sputtered and stammered his profuse apologies while I put on a fresh robe.

“You were saying?” I said, prompting him to turn around.

He hesitated to face me until he could see I was decent. “I, uh, was going to say you don’t need to worry about Gabrielle. She’s got a good head on her shoulders and she can hold her own with the Amazons.”

“You are right.” I took a deep breath to relieve some of the tension built up in my shoulders. “You are a good friend to us…uh, Gabrielle.”

A bashful smile threatened to crack his soldierly deportment. “My sword and my life are yours – and Gabrielle’s.”

We stood in awkward silence for a moment. Vulnerability did not come easily to soldiers. It usually got you killed. So this ‘showing my softer side’ as Gabrielle called it was something that hung on me like an ill-fitting tunic. It was going to take some tailoring before I wore it well. Finally I changed the subject.

“I think I will take a walk and stretch my legs a bit.”

“That sounds like a champion idea, Your Highness. Shall I escort you?” Galates asked.

“No, you have duties to perform. Have someone come find me the minute Gabrielle gets back.”

The Commander of the Palace Guards presented a crisp salute, did an about face, and left me to get dressed.

Before leaving, I went back into my bath chamber and selected a big golden apple from the platter of fruit to take to my favourite horse – the one Gabrielle had named Argo.

~~~~~

I never made it to the stables. Instead, I made my way down to the lower level of the palace where small windows high up on the walls let in very little light – only about the top two feet of the storey was above ground. Oblivious to the shocked stares of the staff, I walked into the kitchen. It was warm and the air was filled with a wonderful mix of aromas. It reminded me of the kitchen in my mother’s tavern – only in this kitchen I could pinch a biscuit fresh out of the oven without fear of having my knuckles rapped.

“Your Highness!” The head chef looked aghast at my presence in his domain. He hurried over to where I stood and bowed. “Is there a problem?”

“No. I was just…” I caught myself. I did not see the need to explain myself to a servant. In fact, there was only one person in my empire I felt any compunction to explain myself to, and she was not here. “…Just carry on with whatever you were doing.”

“Very well, Your Highness.” He went back to stirring the contents of a big iron pot suspended over a cooking fire.

I peeked over his shoulder to see what he was cooking. He stepped aside to let me have a good whiff.

“Mmmm, not bad,” I said, “but it needs just a pinch more rosemary.”

The sceptical head chef took the spoon and dipped it into the simmering liquid. His eyes widened, as he tasted for himself.

“You are right, Highness. And I will have a word with my soup chef about it.”

With the head chef berating the hapless assistant, I left the kitchen and climbed the narrow staircase to the main level.

I tried to convince myself it was by happenstance rather than design that I found myself in front of the door to Gabrielle’s quarters – a half-eaten apple core in my hand.

When we had first arrived in Corinth, the palace was very run down and in need of major renovating. There was no room suitable for Gabrielle in the servants’ quarters, so I had given her a small suite of two rooms in the guest wing, much to her delight.

When the nature of our relationship changed, Gabrielle spent most nights in my quarters. Gabrielle had wanted to move in permanently, but I had insisted she keep her own rooms – if only for appearances.

The palace was mine. Corinth was mine. Greece was mine. But these were Gabrielle’s rooms – her special haven where she went to do her writing. These rooms were the only place that I did not enter without knocking first.

Without thinking I reached out and opened the door. Only as I stepped into the suite did I realise what I was doing, but the stubborn part of my brain overruled my conscience.

I tossed the remains of the apple out of the window and wandered around the room. I remembered how Gabrielle had walked around the room when I first showed it to her. She had examined every inch, touching the walls and furniture with a look of wonder and disbelief that she was going to live in such splendour.

The room had changed a lot since that first day. Gabrielle’s possessions filled the drawers and cupboards; the walls were adorned with brightly coloured mosaics. Her personality had been well and truly impressed upon the surroundings.

I stopped by her writing table. Several scrolls were scattered about the surface and I picked one up at random. As I read I first thought it might be some sort of diary as Gabrielle detailed my coronation in Athens, but the language used was more dramatic and dynamic than one would use to document a day’s events.

‘I felt my heart soar as Xena’s first action on being crowned Empress was to look in my direction and smile. I was so proud to have played a part in her victory and was honoured that she chose that moment to recognise me.’

I searched my memory to try and recall that moment, but all I could remember of my coronation was the satisfaction of having achieved the first of my goals. It was good to read Gabrielle’s account of my coronation day, though it seemed more a work of fiction than the facts as I remembered them. It was almost as if she was writing it as part of an epic story. ‘Glorious’, ‘beautiful’, ‘magnificent’ and ‘regal’ were just some of the words she used to describe me. Was that how she really saw me? I wondered. Did she really see me as some kind of hero? I dismissed the idea as poetic license and continued reading.

Suddenly, a sense of urgency pervaded the palace. I heard the faint sound of a guard barking out orders and rapid footsteps echoing along the corridors. I cocked my head to listen. I recognised Galates’ voice and then a softer voice, which accompanied his. It was Gabrielle.

Realising I was in her quarters, I felt a momentary clench of guilt – as if I was invading her privacy.

“…See the Empress tell her I’ll be-” Gabrielle was speaking as she opened the door. “Oh!” She jumped when she saw me.

“Gabrielle!” Galates pushed his way past her and entered the room, sword at the ready.

I made my presence known. “It’s only me, Commander.”

The stunned soldier pulled up when he recognised me and resheathed his sword.

“Return to duty,” I said.

“Huh? Oh, yes, Your Highness.” Galates saluted then beat a hasty retreat out of the room.

I looked at Gabrielle and then down at the scroll in my hands. “I, uh…I didn’t mean to pry.”

“No, that’s fine. I’ve wanted to show them to you, I just didn’t know whether you’d be interested. So, what did you think?” Gabrielle said, crossing over to the table.

“It was good.”

“But?” Gabrielle must have sensed the uncertainty in my voice.

“I don’t remember it happening quite that way,” I replied.

Gabrielle smiled sheepishly. “Well… perhaps I used a bit of artistic licence to make some parts a little more epic.”

“I didn’t say I didn’t like it,” I said sincerely. “It was very good.”

“Thanks.”

I wanted to say more, but discussing the finer points of prose was not my strong suit, so I changed subject.

“What took you so long?” I asked.

“Sorry, I stayed for a meal. Terreis offered and it seemed rude to refuse.”

“Right. I was… how did it go with the treaty?”

“Slowly. We managed some progress,” Gabrielle replied distantly.

“Do you think the Queen will sign?” I pressed.

“Yes-” Gabrielle paused as if there was something more she wanted to tell me before she confirmed she thought Terreis would sign.

My instincts about Terreis were probably on the mark, because I could tell when Gabrielle was withholding something, but now was not the time to press Gabrielle for details. She had been gone too long and I all I wanted to do was take her to bed and show her how much she was missed.

“Come on,” I said. “Let’s go back to my rooms.”

“I’ll be along in a soon. There are few things I must attend to first.” She raised herself on the tips of her toes to give me a kiss. “I won’t be too long. Promise.”

“I will hold you to that.” I leant down and gave her kiss.

I made my way back to my suite via the kitchen. Gabrielle may have eaten at the Amazons’ camp, but all I’d had was an apple.

Chapter 5
~~~~~~~~~~

I had received an unexpected invitation from Queen Terreis to visit the Amazon camp. While it was primarily to discuss the treaty, I was looking forward to visiting for other reasons. It was an opportunity to see how Amazons lived and get to know them better. I asked Xena if she’d ever met any Amazons before the treaty negotiations. She said she ‘had some dealings’ with them, in her usual enigmatic way, and then changed the subject. Xena’s past must’ve been very painful because she rarely spoke of it. Xena believed that ‘regrets only serve to make you lose focus, and without focus you can’t achieve greatness.’

Before I left to meet with Queen Terreis, I took some time to finish a letter to my sister. I wrote to Lila as often as I could and told her about life in the Empress’ court – how satisfying I found my work and how exciting it was living in the palace – nothing too specific. I had to be careful what I said in a letter in case a spy intercepted it or something.

Sadly, I couldn’t share the most important thing in my life with my sister. Xena was adamant that we keep our relationship a secret. It was hard, because growing up, Lila and I told each other everything. We weren’t just sisters, we were best friends and she knew all my secrets.

Queen Terreis reminded me a little of Lila. Not that they were alike, but Terreis seemed so genuine and approachable, it was like I had known her my whole life. Perhaps Terreis and I could become friends, I thought.

There was a knock on my chamber door. I could tell by the particular ‘rap…rap rap’ who it was. “Hello Galates. Come in.”

“How did you know it was me?” He asked as he closed the door behind him.

“It’s a gift,” I replied.

Galates strode across my sitting room and came to a stop at the side of my desk where I was working amid a mound of scrolls and parchments. He picked up a scroll that had rolled off the desk and onto the floor, and he handed it back to me.

“Your escort and your horse are ready and waiting for you in the garrison assembly courtyard,” he said.

“Thank you.” I casually tossed the scroll back onto the pile. “Give me a minute. Let me finish up this letter to my sister.”

“Give her my love,” he said jokingly.

I pretended to write down what he said. “P.S. Galates sends his love.” I read it aloud as I wrote.

Looking over my shoulder He strained to read the parchment. “You’re not actually writing that, are you?” There was panic in his voice.

I laughed at him, and I pulled my hands away to reveal no such postscript, much to the Lt. Commander’s relief.

I signed the bottom, folded the parchment, and offered it up towards Galates. “Would you mind seeing that this goes out for me, please?”

He took the letter from me. “Certainly. There’s a courier leaving for Thrace in the morning.”

“Why, thank you, sir,” I replied as I stood up.

I moved across to my wardrobe, took out a short-waisted leather jacket that matched the short leather skirt I was wearing, and put it on. “You’ll keep an eye on the Empress while I’m gone, won’t you?”

“I don’t think Empress Xena needs anyone watching over her. She can take care of herself.”

“You know what I mean. In fact, you’re the only one in the whole world who does know what I mean.”

“Yes, I know what you mean.” The corners of his mouth curled upward in a slight but knowing smile.

“Will you send word to the my escort commander that I will be there presently? I want to see the Empress before I go. You know, for any last minute instructions.”

The corners of my mouth mirrored Galates with the same knowing smile. It reminded me that I indeed had a ‘best friend’ who knew all my secrets.

~~~~~

Xena was coming down the hallway towards her chambers as I was coming from the other direction where a new staircase had recently been added so I had a more direct route to Xena’s apartment from mine. Just the sight of her made my insides flutter like a flock of starlings taking wing. It was all I could do to stop myself from running into her arms.

We met up in front of the doors where two guards stood at rigid attention. Neither guard so much as twitched, not that I expected them to. Galates had trained them well, and he’s careful to rotate the guards often to make sure our privacy didn’t become a topic for palace gossip. Still Xena and I greeted each other in a professional manner.

“Your Highness, I am leaving to go meet with the Amazon Queen. I wanted to take my leave and see if you had any last minute instructions.”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I do. Come.” Xena said deliberately.

In unison and without looking anywhere but straight ahead, the guards opened the doors for us and closed them behind us. Once we knew we were alone, we relaxed our courtly manner.

“My escort is waiting, but I just had to see you one more time before I left.” I put my arms around her waist and leaned in for a kiss.

Xena planted a firm but tepid kiss on my lips. Not exactly the kind of kiss I was expecting – one that said ‘I love you…hurry home…I can’t wait to have you in my arms again.’

“Is there something wrong?” I asked.

“What makes you think that something’s wrong?”

“Because that kiss had all the passion of kissing my brother – if I had one.”

“Well, let’s see if I can kiss better than your brother – if you had one.”

Xena closed the distance between us until we were so close I could almost hear her heart beating. She brought her hands up to my cheeks – her fingers enlaced in my hair – and slowly deliberately guided my face towards hers. I closed my eyes with eager anticipation, waiting to feel her demanding lips crushing against mine, her tongue exploring my mouth with urgent lustful purpose. Closer. My pulse started racing and my body tingling as her lips continued their unhurried approach. Closer. I could feel her warm exhalation brush across my cheek. Closer. I felt the barest tip of her tongue lightly graze the corners as it traced the contour of my mouth. Closer. I was almost delirious from desire. Another moment longer and she would’ve had me to the point of begging – treaty or no treaty. Closer. Finally I felt the soft fullness of her lips press against mine. The subtlety of her kiss was so passionate it left me breathless and trembling. Now that was real power.

As Xena slowly untangled her fingers from my hair, she said, “Your hair seems to be getting blonder.”

“And you’re just noticing it now?” I exclaimed. I had been letting it grow out a bit, and I also had it gradually lightened from strawberry-blonde to a much lighter, golden blonde. I was beginning to wonder if Xena’s keen powers of observation were beginning to lose their edge.

“So you don’t mind?” I asked, running my hand through the strands of hair that came to rest on my shoulder.

“Gabrielle I wouldn’t care if you were bald.”

That didn’t come out right but I knew what she meant. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

Xena dipped her head and gave me a look as if to say ‘of course I meant it as a compliment, silly.’ Xena was the only person I knew who could express a vast range of moods and emotions with just the arch of one eyebrow.

“Now, remember to keep your guard up around Terreis. She is a smooth talker and cunning. Don’t agree to anything without my express approval. Got that?”

“Yes, Xena. But I think you’re mistaken about Queen Terreis. I found her to be quite charming, gracious – genuine.”

“That’s the trouble. Anyone who is that ‘charming, gracious, and genuine’ is up to something. I just have to figure out what her angle is.”

“Not everyone is like Caesar, Xena.”

Xena’s jaw muscles tightened and her Aegean-blue eyes turned to steel-grey at the name ‘Caesar’. “Well, Terreis better not be trying to play me; otherwise she will end up like Caesar.”

A sense of foreboding swept over me as Xena’s mood suddenly became dark and brooding. It reminded me that this was a high-stakes gamble with more than my reputation on the line. Her comment drove the point home that the fate of the entire Amazon Nation might very well rest on the success of this treaty.

“Xena, promise me one thing.”

“What?”

“Promise you’ll give this treaty a fair chance,” I replied.

Xena looked at me with no emotion. “My patience is not limitless,” she said flatly. After a few moments, the dark cloud that was her mood lifted and a wry grin spread across her face. “But I am willing to see how far that limit is.”

I smiled and breathed easier.

“I know the treaty means a lot to you,” she continued. “And I can promise to give it every chance to succeed. However if I run out options…” she let her voice trail.

“What do you mean?” My expression changed from relieved to bewildered.

“I mean, Terreis better sign this treaty soon.”

~~~~~

As my escort and I set off for the Amazon encampment, it dawned on me that I didn’t know where it was. So I asked the officer in charge of my escort, Glaphyra, a blonde-haired woman whose scars and twisted nose were the rewards of a soldier’s life.

“It’s about a mile and a half due east from the city, ma’am,” she replied.

“Oh good. I was thinking for a moment that Solari didn’t tell anyone where it was.”

“Who, ma’am?” Glaphyra queried.

“The Amazon that brought the invite, Solari. She must’ve told you where it was.”

“No, ma’am. Commander Galates already knew the location.”

“Oh?” I found that surprising.

Glaphyra explained. “When the Empress heard that the Amazons weren’t going to stay in the palace, she gave orders to track their whereabouts at all times.”

I should have guessed that Xena would know where a potential enemy was in her empire. I hoped that my mission would make these potential enemies our allies.

Just over a mile outside the city Glaphyra led the group off the road into the woods.

“Where are we going? No one is in these woods.”

“Ma’am?”

“Stop ma’aming me please. The name’s Gabrielle.” I hated titles.

“Sorry, ma- Gab – ma-” My escort commander faltered uncomfortably.

It occurred to me that as much as I wasn’t comfortable being called “ma’am”, I had to accept it graciously. “Never mind. Call me whatever makes you are more comfortable.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Glaphyra replied with noticeable relief.

“These woods are undisturbed, there can’t be any Amazons in here.”

The soldier laughed. “You don’t know Amazons very well, do you?”

I was about to reply when my escorts suddenly tensed. Four masked Amazons unexpectedly appeared out of the bushes and blocked the path, which startled me. My honour guard immediately took up defensive positions around me.

Since their faces were covered, I couldn’t immediately tell who was who. The masks they wore helped make the Amazon warriors appear even scarier, which no doubt was the point.

Queen Terreis removed her mask and the others followed suit. “Welcome Gabrielle,” she said warmly. “We are honoured by your visit to our humble camp.”

I bowed courteously and replied, “The honour is all mine, Your Highness. Empress Xena sends her regards.”

“Thank you,” the Amazon Queen replied. “Please, come with me. Solari will make sure your honour guard are made comfortable and your horse is watered.”

Glaphyra stood her ground and looked at me for my orders.

“It’ll be fine, Lieutenant. Go with Solari.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Terreis and I walked along a well-concealed path for another five minutes before we came to a small clearing. At first I didn’t see any sign of their encampment until Queen Terreis pointed out the well-camouflaged tents.

“This one is mine,” said Terreis directing me to a tent that looked indistinguishable from the rest.

I stood in the entry and took it all in. The Queen’s tent was simple; there were no trappings of royalty to speak of. There were no furnishings in the tent, except for a large sheepskin and blanket for bedding and a few cushions scattered about the floor for seating. A log served as a table, with a single candle in an oyster shell as its centrepiece. It was ‘Spartan’ even by Spartan standards.

“Make yourself comfortable,” Terreis gestured to the cushions on the floor. “Would you like a drink?”

Not wanting to refuse her hospitality, I said ‘yes’ and then sat down on one of the cushions nearest the table.

The red-haired Amazon Queen brought a wineskin and two wooden cups with her and sat down next to me at the table. She poured us both some wine and raised her cup. “Here’s to friendship and the success of this treaty.”

“Cheers,” I replied and took a sip. “Hmmm, very good. Thank you, Your Highness,”

Queen Terreis finished her cup of wine and said, “Call me Terreis. After all, we’re going to be working closely together on this treaty. I don’t want formalities to get in the way. Besides, I find titles a bit stuffy.”

“As you wish, Your – Terreis,” I corrected myself. I smiled to myself, because now I knew how Glaphyra felt when I asked her to stop calling me ma’am.

“How long have you been working for Empress Xena?” she asked.

“Just over a year,” I replied. “I started out as her personal assistant.”

“Personal assistant? What does one do as a personal assistant?”

I chuckled inwardly as I recalled the trouble Xena had deciding exactly what a personal assistant was supposed to do. “It was more than just being a servant,” I explained, “I helped the General organise her schedule and took notes during meetings.”

“How did you go from being an assistant to an advisor in the space of a year?” Terreis asked.

“When she became Empress Xena, I became a kind of unofficial advisor in civil matters. Then shortly after we arrived in Corinth there were problems…” I hesitated a moment, unsure if I should be discussing the topic of the dissidents. “Well, let’s just say Empress Xena recognised my talent for dealing with people and promoted me to Civilian Affairs Advisor.”

“Then my estimation of Xena has gone up, if she recognises your talents.”

“She’s not the tyrant that most people think she is.” My response was more in defence of the woman I loved than my boss.

“Your loyalty to her is admirable. How did you come to be in her service? If you don’t mind me asking?”

“Not at all. I’m from a small village in Chalcidice – Potidaea. You’ve probably never heard of it.”

“No, can’t say that I have,” Terreis said apologetically.

“That’s okay, not many people outside of Thrace have heard of it. That’s one of the reasons I left it behind and joined General Xena’s army. But there was another, more important reason.” I paused to judge Terreis’ reaction, but the expression on her face remained neutral. “This may sound silly,” I continued, “but a travelling seer once told me I was fated to meet a mighty warrior, who was destined to unite this land and bring order and stability to the region, and that I was meant to help them.”

“Xena is a mighty warrior in the sense that she’s a good fighter,” said Terreis. “But I don’t think she’s mighty in the moral sense.”

“I believe she’s misunderstood,” I countered. “I’ve seen a side of her that you haven’t. She’s wants a better world. She also wants peace with the Amazons – hence the treaty.”

“You make her sound very noble – that’s certainly not the Xena known to the Amazons.”

“What do you mean?” I asked as impassively as I could.

“You’ll have to ask her. Suffice it to say that she didn’t earn the name “Xena the Conqueror” through diplomacy.”

I so wanted to challenge Terreis’ perception of Xena and show her the side of Xena that I had grown to love and admire. It was very frustrating not to be able to say what was in my heart, but I couldn’t think of a way to say it without giving away too much. So, I steered away from it. “Wars are rarely waged without shedding blood,” I said. “You’re a warrior, so you know the costs. And that’s why this treaty is so important.”

Maybe Terreis saw that I had become uncomfortable with the conversation, because she dropped the subject. “You’re right, Gabrielle. Enough talk of war, we’re here to talk about peace.”

Terreis pulled out her copy of the treaty. “I’ve come up with some proposals for the treaty.”

Terreis started going through her proposals some of which I knew Xena wouldn’t like. “Here in section two, where it says ‘Amazon Territory would become a province within the Greek Empire…'”

“Hang on,” I said as I scanned my scroll looking for where it said that. “Yes, I see it.”

The Amazon Queen continued, “I want it changed to read ‘Amazon Territory will continue to be a sovereign state within the Greek Empire…’ and here where it says that the Amazons will recognise the Empress as official head of state…’ This is something we cannot agree to. Only an Amazon with Right of Caste can rule the Amazon Nation.'”

Before I could ask what a ‘Right of Caste’ was, Queen Terreis pointed to section three and said “and here, where it says Amazons shall serve in the Greek Army…’ it needs to read ‘Amazons shall not be compelled to serve unless in defence of Amazon Territory and only under direct command of the Amazon Queen…”

I knew Xena and General Darnell would never agree to that, but I wasn’t about to tell Queen Terreis that. I needed to come up with a compromise that would suit both sides. “The Empress has great respect for the skill of the Amazon warrior, but you must concede, Highness, that your warriors would have a difficult time defending against an invading army. If Amazon Territory were to be designated a protectorate of the Greek Empire, you would have the might of the Greek Army standing with you in defence of your homeland.”

Terreis paid close attention as I spoke.

“And as a protectorate, Amazon Territory could retain its autonomy of its internal affairs and relations with other nations, with the exception of declarations of hostilities.” I waited for Terreis to counter my proposal and continue the debate, but she disarmed me.

“You have a way with words, Gabrielle,” Terreis said. “Clearly you are a skilled negotiator. Have you ever considered becoming a poet or an orator?”

“Who me? No, though I do like to write poems and stories. It’s just as a hobby, mind you. And these days, I haven’t had much time for writing.”

“I’d very much like to read some of your poems and stories. Better still, I’d love to hear you recite some of your poems and stories for me.”

“Perhaps,” I said shyly, “but for now let me recite your proposed changes in section four.”

Time passed quickly as we went through each section of the treaty in the same manner. It wasn’t until the strong aroma of rabbit stew wafted into the tent that I realised we had been talking for more than three hours.

“I think we’ve made a good start, Your Highness, but I’ve taken up enough of your time and I should be getting back to the palace.”

“You can’t leave now. You must stay for dinner. I don’t have that many more changes. We can discuss the treaty further while we eat.”

“I don’t-”

“Please,” she said softly and laid a hand on mine. “It’s not often I have such delightful company to share a meal.”

“Well, I…” My cheeks blushed from her compliment. “Very well.” I accepted her invitation. It was an opportunity to get to know Terreis better.

As we ate our meal, I asked Terreis all sorts of questions. She talked about the Amazons, how she became queen, what a ‘Right of Caste’ was, and she shared her thoughts on peace and war.

“Strength is measured in knowing when not to fight. A warrior will tell you that words can start a war and weapons can end them, but the first blood spilled in a war is always with a weapon, not a word. Words can end wars, weapons only prolong them,” Terreis said. “And that is why I came here to Corinth. I saw this treaty as a chance to preserve the Amazon way of life – to end the threat of war with words, not weapons.”

“How do you reconcile these beliefs as queen of a warrior race?” I asked.

Terreis nodded thoughtfully. “That’s a very good question. I believe everyone has a path they must follow in life. One skill or talent that stands above others they possess. This talent defines their path. Some people are strong and can handle a weapon, others may have a skill with building houses, or making bread, or… or writing poetry. All these people are needed to make a complete society.

“Imagine a world without summer or winter, or a world without night or day. Life needs balance: summer and winter, night and day, strong and weak, warrior and poet.

“It’s the diversity of a society that lets it live and grow. If the world were made up of poets, we’d starve because no one could make bread. Or if the world were made up of bakers, our lives would have no poetry to move us. And if the world were made up of warriors, then after a while only one would be left.

“So, we need all these people. As long as they’re working for the same goal and respect each other’s choices, then that will only benefit a society. Do you see what I’m saying?”

“Yes,” I whispered. “Perfectly.” Terreis had so eloquently given voice to my own thoughts and feelings.

Our food got cold as we talked all through the meal and long afterward about a whole range of topics, except the treaty. It was only when Ephiny interrupted us that I realised another two hours had passed.

“Pardon the interruption, My Queen, but her guards are insisting that it is time to return to the palace,” Ephiny said with an exasperated tone. She obviously thought that she had better things to do than pass messages from my guards to me.

Glaphyra appeared at Ephiny’s side. “Beg pardon, but we really should be returning to the palace, ma’am.”

“Of course,” I said to my escort commander. I quickly got to my feet and stood up. “Thank you very much for your hospitality, Queen Terreis.”

Terreis stood and gave me a quick, gentle embrace. “It was my pleasure. I thoroughly enjoyed your visit. We shall have to do this more often after the treaty is concluded.”

“I look forward to it.”

More than ever I wanted this treaty to succeed, because if Terreis made an enemy of Xena then we could not be friends.

~~~~~

I arrived back at the palace and was greeted by a concerned-looking Galates. The first thing he did was order a guard to inform the Empress of my arrival and then dismissed the rest of my escort unit – all except poor Glaphyra. He pulled the Lieutenant aside, out of earshot, and from what I could tell, gave her a good dressing down. After Glaphyra retreated towards the barracks, Galates approached me and he didn’t look at all pleased.

“Don’t be too hard on Glaphyra. It wasn’t her fault. I just lost track of time,” I said.

“I’m just thankful you are all right,” Galates replied as he took my arm and guided me across the courtyard.

“You needn’t have worried. I was perfectly safe.”

“The Empress has been asking after you at least three times an hour,” he said as we crossed the courtyard. “As you can imagine, an agitated Empress was not easy to deal with.”

“I know, poor man,” I joked. “Don’t worry, your sacrifice was not in vain.” I patted the satchel that contained my copy of the treaty.

As we entered the palace’s main hall, the guard Galates had sent to inform Xena hurried towards us and saluted.

“Sir, the Empress is not in her study or her quarters,” the soldier said breathlessly.

“Have you tried the throne room?”

“No, Sir!”

“Try there then.”

The soldier saluted and hurried off and Galates and I walked up the main stairs to the first floor.

Galates paused at the foot of the stairs that led to Xena’s apartments on the top floor. “Are you going up?”

I shook my head. Judging from Galates’ state, I was not looking forward to Xena being found. “No, I think I’ll go to my own quarters and freshen up first.”

“That’s probably a good idea,” Galates replied.

As we rounded the corner and headed towards my quarters, the guard came running down the hallway after us. He looked flustered. “Sir, the Empress is not in the Throne Room either, sir.”

“Pull yourself together, man!” Galates barked and the soldier snapped to attention. “The Empress must be somewhere in the palace or the palace grounds. Find her now, or you will be mucking out stalls the rest of your military career!”

“Sir, yes, sir!” The soldier saluted and jogged away.

“Sorry about that.” Galates said as we watched the soldier disappear around the corner. “Come, I’ll escort you to your rooms.”

As we walked, Galates chatted about his hectic day. “It’s days like these that has me sometimes wishing for the simple farm life again,” he lamented.

“The Empress once told me about a land far to the east. They have a curse there: May you live in interesting times. Perhaps we are cursed,” I replied.

“If we are, then at least we’re in good company,” Galates said with a grin.

“Couldn’t ask for better,” I said as we arrived outside my quarters.

I pushed open the door and entered. “If you see the Empress, tell her I’ll be- Oh!” I was shocked into silence by the sight of Xena standing in my room.

“Gabrielle?” Galates moved in front of me with his sword drawn to see what had startled me.

“It’s only me, Commander. Return to duty,” Xena replied.

Galates apologised, saluted and quickly left the room.

Xena gave me a curious look and then looked down. I noticed she was holding one of my scrolls. “I, uh…I didn’t mean to pry.” Xena started to apologise, but I cut her off.

“No, that’s fine. I’ve wanted to show them to you, I just didn’t know whether you’d be interested.” I moved towards Xena. “So what did you think?”

Xena seemed relieved that I wasn’t angry or upset. “It was good,” she said.

“But?” It sounded like there should be a ‘but’.

“I don’t remember it happening quite that way,” said Xena with a faintly uncomfortable look on her face.

“Well…” I grasped for the words as I felt the heat in my cheeks. I didn’t know which scroll Xena had, but some of my writings extended the truth to a conclusion that was a little more romantic than reality. “Perhaps I used a bit of artistic licence to make some parts a little more epic,” I mumbled.

“I didn’t say I didn’t like it,” Xena assured me. “It was very good.”

“Thanks.”

“What took you so long?” Xena abruptly changed the subject, which she tended to do when the conversation got too mushy.

“Sorry, I stayed for a meal. Terreis offered and it seemed rude to refuse.”

Xena looked a bit sceptical but willing to forgive. “Right. I was… how did it go with the treaty?”

I realised that very little of the time I’d spent at the camp had been devoted to the treaty. To me, the time spent talking to Terreis about other things was just as important – building friendship and trust would help finalise a treaty in the end. However, I knew Xena was impatient to get the treaty signed and I didn’t want to give her the impression I wasn’t up to the job.

“Slowly. We managed some progress,” I replied vaguely.

“Do you think the Queen will sign?”

“Yes-” I stopped myself. I wanted to tell Xena about Terreis the woman, not Terreis the Amazon Queen. I wanted to tell Xena about the sensitive woman who ruled a noble warrior race, and that being kind didn’t mean being weak. But I knew this was not the right time. “Yes, I think she will.”

“Come on,” said Xena. “Let’s go back to my rooms.”

“I’ll be along soon. There are few things I must attend to first.” I gave her a kiss. “I won’t be too long. Promise.”

“I will hold you to that.” She returned my kiss.

After Xena had left, I went to my desk. I had spent so long at the Amazon camp that there was still some paperwork I needed to catch up on. I tried to read a proposal for a new hospice, but my mind kept drifting back to the treaty negotiations with the Amazons.

Gratefully, I was interrupted by a knock. Thinking it was Xena, I jumped up to answer the door. As soon as I opened it, Darphus pushed past me and entered.

“Come in,” I offered with little enthusiasm.

Darphus turned and looked at me. His face was pale and serious, even for him. This can’t be good, I thought.

“Darphus, what is it?”

“There was an incident at the agora this afternoon,” he said sombrely.

“Was it serious?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, no, what happened?”

“A merchant was robbed by a man with a knife. Two officers tried to apprehend the robber. One of them was stabbed. He is now dead.” Darphus’ anger was barely controlled.

“By the gods,” I whispered in disbelief. The protection force was barely up and running and already there were casualties. This wasn’t the start anyone wanted.

“If I had armed, veteran soldiers under my command instead of a bunch of inexperienced do-gooders, this would never have happened!” Darphus glared defiantly at me.

“You don’t know that for sure. If the officers were armed we could have ended up with more dead.”

“We’d have a dead robber and two live officers. I’d guarantee you that!” He said vehemently.

“But that isn’t what the Civil Protection Force is about. It’s about protecting people, even criminals. What sort of justice system is it if all the criminals are killed while being arrested?”

“An effective one,” countered Darphus. “What better message to send potential law breakers? Break the law and suffer the consequences.”

“And we’d have a terrified population who’d fear the very force that’s meant to protect them,” I replied.

“Do it my way and you’d soon have a city without crime.”

“We’ll continue things as they are, understand?” I had to stand firm in this decision. I couldn’t let the first setback destroy the ideal by which the force was created.

“You’re in charge, ma’am,” Darphus replied flatly.

“Did the dead officer have any family?”

“A wife and four children.”

“See that his family receive one half of his wages until such time as they have another source of income.”

“What?” Darphus looked at me incredulously.

“I don’t want his family starving. He joined the force to make a difference. His family shouldn’t suffer because he died protecting this city. In fact I’ll make that a condition for all those join the force.”

“Shouldn’t you clear this with the Empress first?”

“I’ll inform the Empress of my decision. I’m sure she’ll endorse it.”

“Humph.” Darphus turned on his heel and walked out, emphasising his frustration by slamming the door hard behind him.

“You may go,” I muttered to the empty room.

Chapter 6
~~~~~~~~~~

Control. It is something as palpable as a blade to your opponent’s neck or as subtle as a sceptre held casually across your lap. To me power and control were absolutes – no room for compromise. In the high stakes game of empire building, to be vulnerable was to be dragged off in chains and executed, as I had done to those whom I had conquered.

Negotiating a treaty with the Amazons was about as useful as charming the birds from the sky and just as difficult. I even made some comment along those lines to Gabrielle as we sat in the gardens enjoying a mid-morning snack of bread and cheese.

Gabrielle laughed and shook her head. “Watch,” she commanded.

So I watched.

Gabrielle broke off a hunk of bread and tossed it onto the ground. Within a few seconds, a large Calandra Lark swooped down and started pecking at the bread. Soon a second lark and then an Olive-Tree Warbler joined the first bird, and before long there were eight birds fighting over the ever-decreasing morsel.

As I looked on with mild interest, Gabrielle threw another piece down and it was attacked with gusto by the larger birds. The smallest bird of the group, a Black-headed Bunting, was constantly being chased away by the others before it could grab a crumb.

To me this seemed the natural order of things: the strongest carved out the biggest chunk, leaving the smaller birds to pick at the dirt for crumbs. As I had come to expect, Gabrielle did not see it that way.

“Those birds won’t let the little one have his fair share.” Gabrielle complained.

“He is learning a harsh lesson: you must fight for what you want,” I replied.

“But he deserves to eat just as much as the others.”

“Why? The other birds are stronger and faster. To the victor go the spoils.”

“But they are different species, each one is no more deserving than the next. Why should the smaller species suffer because it just happens to be smaller?”

“They are all fighting for the future of themselves and their family,” I replied.

“Do you see everything as a battle to be won?” she asked.

“Not everything,” I whispered suggestively.

Gabrielle leaned into me as my lips tenderly enveloped the lobe of her ear. A quiet moan escaped her lips. “Uhh. You don’t fight fair.”

“Who said life was fair?” I asked.

Gabrielle sat up. “I do. And I think the small and weak have just as much right to eat as the others.” She tore off another piece of bread. “And as long as I’m the one doling out the bread, I’m going to make sure you’re fed first, little fella.”

I laughed.

“What are you laughing at?”

“At you,” I replied. “Only you would change the laws of nature to help those less fortunate.”

She held the generous morsel out towards the tiny bird. At first, it regarded Gabrielle’s outstretched hand with both suspicion and curiosity.

“It’s all right,” she said in a soothing tone.

The small bunting responded and hopped closer – careful not to get too close.

Gabrielle tossed the scrap of bread just in front of the little bird. Warily, it approached the offering and then looked all around to see if any of the bigger birds had noticed. Gabrielle made sure no other birds ventured near by tossing more bits of bread further away. Finally, the little bird stretched its neck out, nipped off a beak full and hopped away.

Gabrielle held another piece of bread out and patiently waited for the little bird to finish consuming the morsel. Again she coaxed the bird into trusting her. This time it hopped back more confidently and didn’t hop away while it ate. With slow deliberation Gabrielle let the diminishing piece of bread roll into her palm. The bunting jumped onto her fingers without hesitation and pecked at the bread in her hand.

A smile lit up her face. Seeing Gabrielle take such pleasure from the simple act of feeding a bird made my heart skip. It didn’t matter that I was trying to secure an empire, or that the Amazons were dragging out the negotiations longer than it took to conquer Athens, Gabrielle was determined to get a little bird to eat. And in doing so, she taught me that with determination and persistence nothing was impossible.

The bird finished its treat, cocked its head to look at Gabrielle, and trilled a melody.

“You’re welcome,” said Gabrielle.

With a final chirp, the bunting flew away.

“Do you want to try it?” Gabrielle asked me.

I shook my head. “Charming birds is not my thing.”

“You charmed me.”

“And you me.” I dipped my head towards Gabrielle’s lips to kiss her, but a servant interrupted us.

“What is it?” I snapped, annoyed at the intrusion.

The servant jumped and babbled an apology. “The Amazon Queen has sent an emissary to speak with you, My Liege.”

“Not again,” I grumbled. Like a staff being snapped over my knee, this idyllic moment was broken and so was my good mood, “This is intolerable!” I stood up abruptly and fumed. “I have had it up to here with this whole business.”

The servant stood visibly quaking in his sandals at my outburst.

“Your Highness,” Gabrielle said calmly. “Perhaps we should hear what the emissary has to say first.”

Gabrielle’s earnest look made me stop before I completely lost my temper.

“All right, go and fetch her,” I ordered.

The servant hurried away and a few moments later Galates appeared escorting Ephiny.

“What is your message then?” I cut straight to the point.

“My Queen would like to invite you and your…” The Amazon paused and glanced at Gabrielle before continuing. “…Advisor to a feast this afternoon.”

“Oh,” I replied flatly.

Gabrielle jumped in. “Uh, the Empress means to what do we owe this honour?”

“To honour you and thank you for your gesture of peace.” Ephiny repeated the message as if every word had left an acrid taste in her mouth.

I suspected this was nothing more than another delaying tactic by Terreis. I was about to decline the invitation, but I glanced in Gabrielle’s direction and saw the expectant look on her face. I knew she would be eager to go. And then I thought of Gabrielle feeding that little bird.

“Very well, I accept the invitation,” I heard myself say, even though my gut told me Terreis was up to something.

“Fine,” said Ephiny. “We’ll expect you mid-afternoon.” She turned to Galates and gestured that she was ready to leave.

The Commander of the Palace Guards looked to me before following the Amazon warrior’s command.

“Commander, escort Ephiny to the gates,” I said.

“Shall I arrange for another female escort, Your Highness?” Galates asked.

“No, that won’t be necessary,” I replied.

Galates saluted and directed Ephiny to precede him.

As soon as Ephiny had departed and we were once again alone, Gabrielle jumped to her feet and hugged me.

“Thanks for agreeing to go,” she gushed. “A real live Amazon feast! It’ll be fun, you’ll see.” She looked down at herself. “Do you think I should change? What does one wear to an Amazon feast?”

I heard what Gabrielle was saying but I was not paying attention. I was trying to figure out Terreis’ strategy. Gabrielle’s attire was the last thing on my mind.

“Xena, did you hear what I said?” Gabrielle asked.

Terreis had not invited us to a banquet just to thank me. She must know that these obvious delays will irritate me. What did she hope to accomplish? I thought.

“Xena?”

“Yes, I heard.”

“Then what’s the matter? Aren’t you pleased to be going?”

No I am not, I thought. When it came to negotiating with the Amazons, I was decidedly not in control. If I were in control, the treaty negotiations would have been concluded an hour after the Amazons had arrived, and Terreis would have either signed the treaty or forfeited her life. But that was no longer an option. Terreis had outmanoeuvred me. She was clearly running things.

Why is it bothering me so much when Amazon territory is inconsequential to my strategic plans? I wondered. My gut told me it had less to do with Terreis’ diplomatic posturing and more to do with all the time she was spending with Gabrielle.

Playing the jealous lover and forbidding Gabrielle to have any further dealings with Terreis would only have made matters worse, but I could not help my frustration showing.

“How much longer does she think I am going to put up with this?” I muttered.

“What do you mean?” Gabrielle frowned.

“Her dragging her feet on this treaty – you having to spend so much time with her. I don’t trust her.”

Gabrielle was quick to defend the Amazon Queen. “Terreis has been nothing but honest throughout. She wants the treaty to be a success.”

” She is stalling so she can spend time with you!” I finally blurted out my concern.

“I don’t understand. What are you on about?”

“Terreis. You must have noticed Terreis flirting with you.”

“What?” She furrowed her brow in obvious confusion.

“Come on, Gabrielle! You must have noticed, surely?” I asked incredulously. “She makes all the right noises when talking to you. The emphasis on certain words, the way she smiles at you, the gleam in her eye. The way she keeps finding reasons to get you alone with her.”

“Don’t be silly. You’re imagining things.”

“I am not.” I was more bemused at Gabrielle’s innocence than angry at Terreis’ nerve.

“I think you’re overreacting,” said Gabrielle patiently. “You’re just jealous that someone is treating me in a friendly manner when you’re looking for a reason to mistrust them.”

“Maybe.” I conceded the point.

She leaned forward and kissed me. “Thanks.”

“For what?”

“For not making too big a deal out of it.”

I gave her a smile and hoped she could not read my mind, because I was thinking that if I saw Terreis try anything more than harmless flirting, I would make a very big deal of it.

~~~~~

The feast got under way shortly after we arrived. The food was simple but nutritious. The Amazons were not just accomplished warriors and hunters, but also good cooks. Under any other circumstances, the company would have been very pleasant. We were all warriors with the same code, the same outlook. There was, however, an underlying tension. Most of it was my mistrust of Terreis.

The Amazon Queen had been nothing but courteous and accommodating since our arrival, and that was the problem. She was being courteous and accommodating towards Gabrielle and I didn’t like that. Terreis had even seated herself between Gabrielle and me. I had a hard time masking my displeasure, but I let that go. And even when Terreis invited Gabrielle to dance, I choked back my objections. To stop her doing so would have betrayed our relationship to the Amazons and I could not do that.

Watching Terreis teach Gabrielle the dance moves was almost too much for me to endure. Her hands were on Gabrielle’s hips, guiding them to move to the rhythm of the drums.

“…Empress, did you hear me?”

“Huh?”

“What’s your plan for Persia?” Ephiny reiterated her question.

I finally stopped staring and turned to Ephiny who sat at my right. “Who says I have one?”

“You must have one. Someone like you would have a plan for every situation. You’ve probably even got one for us if this treaty doesn’t get signed.” Ephiny studied me for a moment, and then let out a hollow laugh. “You’ve probably got a plan for us even if it is signed.”

“Do you doubt my honour?”

“No. But if I were in your shoes, I’d have a plan either way.”

“Maybe I haven’t got one,” I replied.

“You must have a plan. You wouldn’t have got to be Empress if you didn’t have a plan.”

“If you make plans all the time then you will have no time to do anything else. Maybe that is why I am Empress and you’re still… where you are.”

“How I serve my nation is more important to me than personal glory.”

“If this treaty gets signed, you would effectively be part of my nation. Then you could serve me as well as you have served the Amazons.” I paused and looked her in the eye. “Then you could have your pride in serving your nation and have personal glory.”

I could see my statement intrigued Ephiny. She was a warrior of my ilk. Someone who wanted the glory of a battle fought hard and won well. The only thing holding her back from triumph was her misplaced, though admirable, loyalty to her sisters. The Amazons were far too weak in numbers to achieve real glory.

My conversation with Ephiny was not enough to distract me from Gabrielle and Terreis. The easy nature with which they laughed together grated on my nerves. I chewed the inside of my cheek to keep myself from showing my displeasure. I had to find a way of disrupting their dancing without it seeming like I was jealous. I realised my right hand had made its way to my chakram and was caressing it in readiness. Fortunately I managed to stop myself from throwing it.

I cast a glance at Ephiny to see if she had noticed where my attention had drifted, but she was busy wrestling a leg off a chicken. At that moment the music stopped and Gabrielle and Terreis made their way back to their seats.

Gabrielle looked a little flushed and a little drunk. I poured a goblet of water and passed it to her as she sat down.

Terreis turned to me and smiled. “I’m sure she’ll forgive me for saying, but Gabrielle is not the most natural of dancers.”

“I do not employ her to dance,” I replied. I kept my face free of any reaction that would give Terreis a read on me.

“No indeed. Her talents obviously lie in diplomacy.” Terreis turned and smiled knowingly at Gabrielle.

It took all the self-control I could muster not to call an end to this Greek farce and have it out with Terreis right then and there. Fortunately for everyone involved, Terreis changed the subject.

“Empress, would you like to see a practical demonstration of our fighting skills?”

I nodded at the unexpected opportunity. “Yes. I would like to see first hand what you can do.”

“Excellent,” Terreis replied. “Ephiny, please escort our honoured guest to the practice area.”

“This way,” said Ephiny after all of us had climbed to our feet.

I had started following Ephiny when from behind me I heard Terreis speak to Gabrielle.

“Gabrielle, wait. There is something I’d like to show you. It won’t take long, and then we can go and watch the weapons demonstration.”

I stopped abruptly and gritted my teeth. It sounded like another ploy to get Gabrielle alone. I fixed a neutral expression to my face and turned around.

“Empress, is that all right with you?” asked Gabrielle.

It seemed like minutes before I forced the words out of my mouth. “Don’t be too long.”

I missed Gabrielle’s reply. I was too busy silencing the voice in my head that was telling me I was being stupid for leaving them alone.

~~~~~

The area that the Amazons had set aside for their weapons practice was already well worn in the short space of time that they had been camped there. That was because the Amazons did not get their reputation as expert warriors from feasting and dancing. My interest was taken by the chobos, small wooden clubs. When used as a pair, these simple weapons could inflict serious damage if they connected with a vulnerable body part. The technique of using them was to keep them in constant motion and to treat them as extensions to your own arms. It was a difficult weapon to master.

“Who is best with these?” I asked Ephiny, pointing to the weapons.

“Solari, give the Empress a demonstration.”

Solari stepped forward and called Eponin to join her. In a blur of movement and clattering blows the pair started sparring. I could see this was not some prearranged set of moves they were following; the warriors were genuinely trying to get past each other’s defences. This was typical of Amazon training – nothing teaches a warrior faster than the real threat of injury.

The demonstration of the chobos was impressive, but what I really wanted to see was how good Ephiny was. During the negotiations I had come to respect Ephiny. I understood her better than her queen. She had the natural mistrust of a potential enemy and she was constantly ready to react to any situation. Her queen, on the other hand, seemed too gentle for a leader of a warrior nation.

“Not bad,” I commented to Solari and held my hand out to take the chobos.

The sturdy Amazon cast a glance at Ephiny as if to seek permission, then handed them over.

“I suppose you can do better,” Ephiny challenged.

“Maybe.” I tapped the weapons together experimentally and then gave her a look over my shoulder. “Care to try me?”

Ephiny walked over to Eponin and relieved her of her chobos. “I promise to go easy on you,” she said with a patronising smile.

Ephiny launched her attack before the smile had left her lips, and true to her word she went easy. However as soon as I deflected her first attack and launched one of my own, she realised that she could not take it easy, not if she wanted to hold her own against me.

Ephiny took a jump back from my attack, but not before I landed a blow to her upper arm. She risked a quick glance at the bruise that was already forming and returned to the match. I absorbed her attack, assessing her skill and strength. Her blows struck my chobos with a force and rapidity that almost knocked them from my grip, which was no small feat.

I allowed myself to be moved backwards by her onslaught, occasionally ducking the odd swipe that got past my defences.

Ephiny taunted me. “With a bit more practice, you’ll almost be ready to join our army.”

“You are good,” I told her. “But you have not beaten me.”

“Yet,” purred Ephiny and pushed her perceived advantage.

I decided to use her momentum against her. By stumbling backwards I forced her to stretch that little bit more than she was prepared for. Rolling onto my back I raised a foot and connected with her stomach. My foot lifted her off the ground and the momentum flipped her over the top of me. I bounded to my feet and turned around. It surprised me to see Ephiny already standing. That move should have thrown her onto her back, but somehow she had managed to twist in mid-air and land on her feet.

There was no time to stand in awe of Ephiny’s skill. She came at me with a flurry of combinations at such a speed that I had to defend myself more vigorously than before. The harder I tried to push my advantage, the faster she came at me. Every blow of mine was blocked; every opening I saw was closed before I could penetrate it.

As good as Ephiny was, however, I was not about to be beaten. I came at her with a bruising volley of overhead strikes. Ephiny crossed her chobos above her head and did her best to block my attack, but I could feel her strength giving out. It was time to end it. I raised my chobos, crossed them above my head, and brought the sticks down with all my might directly at Ephiny’s head. She brought her weapons up to block my attack and the force of my strike caused her knees to buckle. In one fluid motion, I pushed off the ground, flipped over her head, twisted in mid-air, and came down behind her, knocking one of her chobos out of her grip. Yet Ephiny was not defeated.

Before I could set up for the final blow, the skilful warrior spun around hoping to get a piece of me, but she missed. I crouched down and her strike sailed over my head. With a clear target I poked her in the stomach with one of my chobos, but only hard enough to wind her. As she doubled up, I placed my other chobo behind her knees and stood up. Ephiny was unceremoniously deposited on her backside in the dust.

Solari and Eponin showed no restraint in laughing at the way their sister had been upended. Ephiny herself was embarrassed at being beaten, but she gave me a slight nod to show her appreciation of my skill.

“With a bit more practice, you will almost be ready to join my army,” I teased with a straight face and then held a hand out to help her up.

After we had wiped off the sweat and dirt, Ephiny and I shared a flagon of ale and swapped a few stories of our most memorable battles. Feeling that I had built up some sort of rapport with Terreis’ second-in-command, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to press her for information about her queen’s intentions.

“Your queen seems to have taken a liking to my advisor,” I said casually.

Ephiny’s mood immediately turned dour. “It’s a bit more than a liking.”

I tried to sound casual. “You think there are more than just treaty negotiations going on?”

“It’s not my place to say.”

“Don’t worry. This is just between the two of us. Strictly unofficial.”

Ephiny’s miserable look gave her feelings away before she ever uttered a word. “No treaty negotiations should take this long, and that’s all I’m going to say.”

“Why should that matter to you?” I asked.

Ephiny tried to laugh it off, but I could tell I had hit a nerve. She came back with a sharp question of her own. It seemed we had started sparring again; only this time our weapons were words.

“Let me ask you – unofficially of course,” Ephiny countered.

I nodded agreement.

Ephiny continued. “You are obviously a strong and decisive warrior – someone who takes instead of talks. So why are you negotiating a peace treaty with the Amazons? We pose no real threat to your army. Why haven’t you just conquered us like you have all the other territory under your dominion?”

Her candour had caught me off balance. How am I going to respond to that, I wondered. I couldn’t very well say ‘because it was my lover’s idea and I am so whipped I could not say no.’

My hesitation gave Ephiny the opening she was looking for and she pressed her advantage.

“Ahh. I see,” she said knowingly. “Gabrielle is more than just your advisor.”

I felt like I had the wind knocked out of my lungs, but I was desperate not to show Ephiny that her blow landed right on target.

“That’s it. It has to be. Your reputation for bedding young women is legendary.”

I wanted to strike her for the lewd comment, but I had to maintain my composure. If it got out that I had feelings for Gabrielle, then that was a weakness that could be exploited.

“I never said I had not bedded her,” I heard myself boast. “What do I care if your queen picks up my leftovers?”

Ephiny flinched at my words, and inwardly so did I, but there was no way to un-say it. I wanted to kick myself for allowing Ephiny to outmanoeuvre me like that. All I could do then was to try and maintain my composure long enough to find Gabrielle and get back to the palace before I completely lost control of the entire situation.

Chapter 7
~~~~~~~~~~

As each day passed, it was becoming more and more difficult to keep my relationship with Xena private. I understood Xena’s insistence that we keep it secret for political reasons, but it was for political reasons that I wished it were out in the open. For one thing, I wouldn’t have to suffer his uncamouflaged scorn if General Darnell knew I was the Empress’ intimate companion. On the other hand, knowing would only serve to fuel his contempt for me. No doubt he’d accuse me of sleeping my way to power. No, Xena was right. It was better kept secret, if for no other reason than I wanted to be respected for who I was, not who I slept with.

Clothes lay strewn over every piece of furniture in my room. I had been fretting over what to wear to the Amazons’ feast like a girl who’d been asked to her first dance. Finally I decided upon an understated moss-green tunic with russet coloured trousers. I wanted to look festive without seeming to stand out from the more muted tones the Amazons wore.

I was headed across the main hall, still fussing with my clothes, when I ran into General Darnell coming in the same way I was going out.

“I need to talk to you,” General Darnell said sharply.

“I’m sorry General. I’m on my way to meet the Empress-”

He cut me off. “When are those bloody villagers leaving?”

With Xena’s approval, I had the villagers from Philus housed temporarily in the palace barracks. It meant the Palace Guards had to be billeted in the servant quarters and some of the still-to-be refurbished rooms in the palace. This hadn’t sat well with the General.

I drew in a long breath, because I didn’t want my frustration to show. “The Empress signed the work orders yesterday, so construction will begin tomorrow. Temporary quarters have been set up for the villagers and the workers. That means the Palace Guards will be back in their barracks by nightfall.”

General Darnell’s taut jaw muscles visibly relaxed when he heard that things would soon be back to normal.

“And just so you are aware,” I said, “palace garrison reserves will be helping to rebuild Philus -” Before he could object, I quickly added, “and yes, the Empress approved that too.”

“You amaze me,” Darnell said. “I thought you were all talk and very little substance. I see now I was mistaken. You are very shrewd.”

“I’m not sure I understand what you mean, General,” I replied.

“I mean you manipulate people and situations like a seasoned politician.”

His words pierced me like a hundred arrows. “I am not manipulative, I-”

“Come, come, Gabrielle. Don’t be modest. You’ve got the Empress following you like a bitch in heat.”

“What?” I couldn’t believe what I had just heard Darnell say.

“You think I don’t know what’s going on between you and the Empress?”

A surge of panic flooded my limbs. “I, uh…”

“Don’t deny it,” he replied.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, General.” I tried to sound unflappable as I searched for how he could’ve found out.

“Isn’t it obvious?” he countered. “You’re trying to drive a wedge between the Empress and me. You’ve already succeeded in replacing me as the Empress’ chief advisor. What’s next? Do you want command of the army as well? Or perhaps you are aiming higher?”

I tried to remain unruffled though I was very relieved it wasn’t Xena and me he was talking about. “I have no intention of replacing you, General. I’m just trying to do my job, which is improving the lives of the people of Greece. You say I’m being manipulative. Well, if getting things done without bashing heads or pillaging villages is manipulative then I’m guilty as charged.”

“You’re idealism is admirable but misguided. Rebuilding a burned out village is not the same as building an empire.”

“Look, we both want the same thing in the end, General. We both want to help the Empress fulfil her destiny and become the greatest ruler the world has ever known. We just have different ideas about how to achieve it, that’s all.”

“You’re very persuasive. And I’m sure you mean all that stable dropping about the greater good, but one day the Empress will become bored with your do-gooding experiments in social justice and remember her destiny – to conquer the world. So remember, if you’re going to swim with sharks, don’t be surprised when you’re swallowed whole.”

“I wish I had time to debate it with you further, General, but the Empress is waiting for me and-”

With a knowing smirk, the General said, “You see, you have the most powerful woman in the known world waiting on you. I’m beginning to wonder who really rules Greece.”

~~~~~

My impromptu meeting with General Darnell had made me late and Xena hated to be kept waiting. As I hurried across the courtyard, Darphus strode purposefully towards me.

Great, I thought, just what I didn’t want – another confrontation with Darphus. Were the Furies trying to make me late just for sport?

Darphus came to a halt in front of me and stood a little straighter than normal as though he was trying to stand to attention. His arm started to move as if he was going to salute me but then thought better of it.

“I’m afraid I’m late for an appointment, Lieutenant.”

“I won’t keep you. I just wanted to…what I mean is…shit, I just wanted to say I’m sorry if I was a bit short with you last night.”

“That’s okay, Lieutenant. It must have been a difficult day for you. It’s not easy to lose someone under your command.”

“That’s right. Especially when they’re not well trained.” He held a hand up to stop the expected protest from me. “I’m not blaming anyone, I know we need men on the streets now.”

“I have been giving it some thought, and while I don’t want armed officers patrolling the streets, I can see there is a need for an armed force in some extreme circumstances. So what would you say to a compromise?”

“What sort of compromise?” he asked with a look of sceptical curiosity.

“We could arm the officers with a staff or short club – something without a blade. I’m sure that would appear less threatening to the public and allow the officers to defend themselves and keep the peace. And in case of emergencies, we would also have an elite unit trained to use swords that could go wherever needed.”

Darphus nodded. “What would be better is if all officers were trained to use a sword and club. They could carry the club on their patrols, but could use a sword if the need arises. I’d rather all of them knew how to use a sword instead of just a few, you never know when they might be needed.”

“That sounds like a good idea. Come up with a plan that I can take to the Empress.”

“I’ll get onto it straight away.” He hesitated a moment. “Speaking of the Empress. You didn’t mention our disagreement yesterday did you?”

“No. I didn’t think it warranted her attention.”

“Thank you. I know she assigned me to this detail because she has doubts about my ability to command. I don’t want either of you to think I wasn’t up to the job.”

“I think you’re doing a fine job, Darphus. And I’m sure the Empress will be impressed as well.”

~~~~~

It was early afternoon when Xena and I finally set out for the Amazons’ camp. She was already irked to be going to the feast, and it didn’t help her mood that I was late meeting her at the stables. I blamed it on trying to find an outfit to wear, which didn’t make her happy but she forgave me. It was better than telling her that Darphus had stopped me to apologise, or that Darnell and I had another frank exchange of words, or that the General might’ve somehow found out about us. That would’ve really put her in a bad-tempered mood.

As we neared the turn-off on the road leading to the Amazon encampment, an eerie silence overtook the cawing of birds in the trees all around us. It made the hairs on the back of my neck bristle.

Xena pulled on up on the reins and her horse came to an abrupt halt. I pulled Daisy along side her.

“Why have we stopped?” I asked.

Xena made no reply as she dismounted. She silently signalled for me to be quiet and dismount, and I obeyed.

“But we’re not at the Amazon camp yet,” I whispered.

Suddenly, razor sharp steel whistled past my ear. “What the-what’s the matter?” I looked around to see what had made Xena draw her sword.

Still saying nothing, Xena drove the blade tip into the ground in front of her and raised her arms over her head, clasping her hands together. Before I could ask her what was going on, three masked Amazons appeared from behind a large thicket of blackberries.

“Ah, I see you know the Amazon sign for peace,” said the masked figure standing closest to us. Her voice sounded familiar, but the fearsome mask muffled it. “Our Queen bids you welcome.”

“Thank you, Ephiny,” Xena replied.

The Amazon pushed the mask up to reveal her face. It was indeed Ephiny. The two Amazons flanking Ephiny followed her lead and removed their masks as well. It was Solari and Eponin.

They escorted us to the Amazon camp. The underbrush and trees eventually gave way to a clearing where the Amazons had gathered.

Ephiny led us to Terreis who was standing on a small raised platform, dressed in her finest leathers and richly plumed mask. Two guards flanked her, holding ornately carved spears. Ephiny saluted and then stood aside to present us to her queen.

Terreis gave us a formal welcome. “Empress Xena, Gabrielle. Welcome. We are honoured to have you as our guests.”

“It is we who are honoured, Queen Terreis.” Xena said. I just nodded and smiled.

“I hope you brought your appetite, because our cook has prepared a feast of Amazon specialties in your honour.”

That’s when I spoke up. “Yes, I’m famished!” My enthusiasm made everyone laugh, except for Xena. Her face didn’t even twitch with amusement.

“Well then, this way to the food,” Terreis said with a chuckle.

The Amazons treated us to a feast truly fit for an empress. There was plenty of fresh meat, berries and nuts, and more wine and ale than we could possibly drink. Throughout the meal we were entertained with music and dancing. The music was primal and hypnotic – the dancing earthy and erotic.

“Come. Let’s dance.”

I looked up to see Terreis holding a hand out, and before I could say anything, she reached down and took my hand, but I resisted being pulled to my feet.

“No, no. I’m not that good of a dancer.”

“Come on, Gabrielle,” Terreis gave me another tug.

“Honest, I have two left feet,” I protested.

“Don’t worry, I’ll teach you,” Terreis assured me.

I glanced towards Xena for help, but she didn’t come to my rescue. She just nodded for me to go and went back to talking with Ephiny.

“All right, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Terreis pulled me to my feet and led me towards the circle of dancers.

“I don’t think I can dance like that,” I said, pointing at the others.

“Sure you can. Just let go and let your body move to the rhythm of the drums.”

I stood on the fringe of the circle and tried shuffling my feet, but I felt hopelessly inept and a little self-conscious.

“Here, I’ll show you. Watch,” Terreis said. She stood beside me and demonstrated the basic movement, a loping gait interspersed with stretching jumps, but the footwork and arm movements looked hard to imitate.

Terreis took a drink from the wineskin she was holding, and then offered it to me.

I took a mouthful of the wine for fortitude before I tried to copy the dance steps. That might have been a mistake. It was much more potent than the wine I was used to drinking, and I tended to become uncoordinated when drunk.

I tried following the dance movements, but I had all the grace of a pachyderm in mud.

“No, no,” Terreis shook her head, laughing. She stepped behind me and took hold of my arm. “Bring your arm up like this.” Terreis moved my arm up and gently twisted the wrist. “Then move your leg.” She pushed the back of my knee causing it to bend. I lost my balance and fell back against her chest.

She was breathing heavily from dancing. Her warm exhalations on the back of my neck sent a pleasurable shiver down my spine.

I pulled away from Terreis, reached for the wineskin and had a long swallow of the strong drink in the hope it would cool me down.

Mercifully the music stopped before I made too much of an exhibition of myself. As the musicians took a break to have some food, Terreis and I moved back to our seats.

Xena’s face was unreadable as she watched me sit down out of breath and slightly drunk. She gave me a cup of water, which I greedily drank down. I reached for the pitcher and poured myself another cup and drank it and then another cup. Dancing with Terreis may not have made me more graceful but it sure made me thirstier.

Terreis turned to Xena and said, “I’m sure she’ll forgive me for saying, but Gabrielle is not the most natural of dancers.”

“I do not employ her to dance,” Xena replied flatly.

“No indeed. Her talents obviously lie in diplomacy.” Terreis smiled in my direction.

I was feeling quite uncomfortable being talked about in the third person and their comments were loaded with double meaning and veiled one-upmanship. Luckily Terreis changed the subject before I did.

“Empress, would you like to see a practical demonstration of our fighting skills?” the Queen asked.

“Yes. I would like to see first hand what you can do,” Xena replied.

“Excellent!” Terreis turned to her second. “Ephiny, please escort the Empress to the practice area.”

Ephiny and Terreis stood up and waited for Xena and me to do the same.

“This way,” said Ephiny and signalled Xena to precede her.

Xena started to follow Ephiny and I started to follow them also, but Terreis laid her hand on my arm to hold me back.

“Gabrielle, wait. There is something I’d like to show you. It won’t take long, and then we can go and watch the weapons demonstration.”

“Certainly. I will just let the Empress know.” I called out to Xena, “Empress is that all right with you?”

I could see Xena weighing her words. “Don’t be too long,” she said eventually.

I assured her I’d be there presently, but Xena didn’t wait for my answer. She had already turned away to follow Ephiny. This was just as well, because Terreis and I were much longer than a few minutes.

~~~~~

Terreis directed me to her tent, where we sat down on the pillows in the middle of the room and started talking.

“I’m sorry about the dancing. I was hopeless.”

“No, you did very well.” Terreis was being very diplomatic. “Did you take dancing lessons when you were a girl?”

“Wasn’t it obvious?” I asked with a hint of sarcasm.

Terreis chuckled. “I thought every young Greek girl was taught to dance.”

“I wasn’t like other girls,” I replied.

“In what way?” Terreis asked in a way that conveyed genuine interest.

“I wanted to read philosophy and learn about history and science. So they didn’t consider me a normal girl.”

“Philosophy and history are among the first things taught to Amazon girls.”

“Really?” I was surprised. Greek girls were taught how to maintain a household, as well as weaving, music, and yes, dancing.

“Really,” Terreis replied. “It is a man’s world, Gabrielle-not because it should be, but, because we let them have it.”

“Yeah?” I was interested in hearing more.

Terreis continued. “The Amazon world is based on truth and a woman’s individual strength.”

“Well, I’m all for that,” I replied. “I’ve always considered myself a single-minded person. Of course, if I got married I’d have to ask my spouse if that was okay.”

Terreis gave me an uncertain look.

“That was a joke,” I admitted.

“Phew, for a moment there I thought you were serious,” Terreis said with relief.

“You did?”

“No.”

We both enjoyed the easy banter between us.

“I have something I wanted to show you.” Terreis handed me a scroll. “Open it,” she said.

I opened the scroll and saw a poem.

“I know I should’ve been working on the treaty, but you inspired me,” Terreis confessed. “Read it.”

“Sure,” I replied, and I read the poem out loud.

From deep within a well of aquamarine
I draw up and drink my fill
Yet it leaves my thirst unquenched
For want of slaking

“It’s beautiful,” I replied.

“I’m glad you like it.”

“You know, you continue to surprise and amaze me. Here you are, Queen of the Amazons – a warrior – and yet you write poetry.”

“Is that good?”

“Yes, very good. Take this poem, for example. It is simple yet deeply moving. Clearly it’s a poem about unrequited love.”

“Perhaps,” she said thoughtfully. “Or perhaps it’s just a poem about being really, really thirsty,” Terreis said with a wink.

“Do you mind if I ask you something personal?” I asked.

“No, I don’t mind at all. What is it?”

“Have you ever been in love?”

“Why do you ask?” Terreis looked at me with eyes that suddenly sparkled.

“Just curious.”

“You don’t ask a loaded question like that and then say ‘just curious’. What’s on your mind?”

“Well, what if, hypothetically speaking, say you were in love with this person…how would you feel? I mean what would you do? I mean would you tell anybody?”

“Well, then ‘hypothetically’, if it were me, I’d feel like I was walking on clouds, and I’d shower this person with flowers and gifts and poems, and I’d want to race to the top of a mountain and shout for all the world to hear that someone very special loved me and I was the luckiest person alive!”

That’s how I felt, but Xena wasn’t a shout it from the mountaintop kind of person. I mean, Xena’s much more guarded with her feelings, but she shows me how she feels when she makes love to me and in the way she treats me when we’re alone. I love Xena no matter what, but would it kill her to say it more often? I thought.

“Did I answer your question?”

Terreis’ question brought me back from my brooding. “Yes, and thank you.” I leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek.

“What was that for?” Terreis asked.

“For everything – for being such a good friend.”

“No thanks necessary,” Terreis replied. She reached out and took my hand in hers.

I looked down at our enfolded hands; her thumb gently outlined the veins that were visible on the top of my hand. I sat mesmerised by the tenderness of her touch.

I felt overcome with a warmth and a closeness I never thought I’d feel for anyone else but Xena. “I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this, but I-I cherish our friendship.”

“The feeling is very mutual.” Terreis said in a low and sultry voice.

We looked deeply into each other’s eyes and suddenly I felt as if the air in the tent had become superheated. It was hard to breathe. Terreis moved closer as if she meant to kiss me. I pulled back and put some space between us so I could breathe some fresh air and rein in my mixed up emotions.

“I think we should go watch the weapons demonstration,” I said, as I stood up.

Terreis climbed to her feet. “Leave the weapons, to the others,” she said. “Why don’t we go for a walk and discuss the treaty?”

I glanced at Terreis. She seemed unconcerned by my sudden desire to leave and there was only an innocent, open look on her face.

“There’s a waterfall nearby that I’ve been meaning to go and look at,” Terreis continued. “It’ll make a change to discuss business in such a beautiful place.”

I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to discuss the treaty, but what if Terreis really had tried to kiss me? I didn’t want to hurt our friendship, but I couldn’t tell her that Xena and I were in love. What a mess, I thought.

“Gabrielle?” Terreis prompted me.

“Okay, but I should let the Empress know what I’m doing.”

“Why do you need to tell her? You aren’t a slave.”

“The Empress is merely concerned about my safety. Also I’m sure she’d like to know that we’re going to be discussing the treaty, she may have a point that she wants me to bring up.”

I breathed a mental sigh when Terreis nodded her understanding. I hoped that Xena would find some reason for me to stay near her.

~~~~~

When I neared the practice area, I noticed the crowd gathered around Xena and Ephiny. They had just finished a sparring match, and from the look of things, it appeared Xena had won. I don’t know why, but I felt a touch of pride that my love had been victorious.

She and Ephiny wiped the sweat from their faces and drank some ale to quench their thirst. I decided to stay back, nearby but out of the way, until Xena had a chance to cool off and catch her breath. At first, their conversation was about warrior stuff and I didn’t pay much attention. However, when the conversation turned to Terreis and me, I pricked up my ears and listened.

“Your queen seems to have taken a liking to my advisor,” Xena said casually.

“It’s a bit more than a liking,” Ephiny replied.

“You think there are more than just treaty negotiations going on?”

Ephiny answered conspiratorially. “No treaty negotiations should take this long, and that’s all I’m going to say.”

“Why should that matter to you?” Xena asked.

Ephiny didn’t give an answer. Instead the curly-haired warrior asked Xena why The Conqueror would be negotiating a peace treaty with the Amazons.

With no satisfactory explanation from Xena, Ephiny put two and two together somehow. “Ahh. I see,” she said knowingly. “Gabrielle is more than just your advisor.”

I couldn’t believe Xena stood there in awkward silence, offering no explanation or denial.

“That’s it,” Ephiny said triumphantly. “It has to be. Your reputation for bedding young women is legendary.”

“I never said I had not bedded her,” Xena boasted. “What do I care if your queen picks up my leftovers?”

I felt as though I had just been kicked in the gut. All this time, Xena insisted we had to keep our relationship secret, and here she was telling a virtual stranger that she had bedded me.

I stepped from the shadows and they both turned to look at me. At least Xena had the decency to look embarrassed. Ephiny looked as though the whole thing was very amusing.

“It seems I came a bit too late – or too early.” I said with obvious displeasure.

“Gabrielle, can I speak to you?” Xena pointed towards the other side of the clearing. “In private.”

With my arms across my chest, I stood my ground and made no effort to jump to her bidding. Xena took hold of my shoulder and ushered me away from listening ears.

“Gabrielle,” Xena whispered sheepishly, “it is not what it sounded like. Trust me. I will explain it all when we get back to the palace.”

Betraying no emotion, I whispered back, “I came here to tell you that I was going for a walk with Terreis.”

“A walk? Where?”

“There’s a waterfall-”

Xena interrupted me. “Outside the camp? No.” Though she whispered, her tone was dismissive, which annoyed me.

“I’m not asking for your permission,” I countered in a louder whisper. “I’ve come to tell you what I’m going to do.”

Her steely blue eyes pierced me like a spear and pinned me to the spot. “Not with Terreis. I do not want you alone with her outside the camp.”

“I’m not something you own,” I retorted sharply. “I decide who I go with and when I go with them.”

Xena’s eyes flashed angrily and her voice grew louder. “No you do not!” she exclaimed. “I do.” She wasn’t shouting, but she spoke in that soulless Empress voice of hers, which made my blood run cold. “You serve me. Your actions should be mine; your thoughts should be mine when you act as my representative.”

My mouth went dry and my throat seemed to constrict as she spoke. I swallowed hard to hold back hurt, angry tears. “Is that all I am to you?”

Xena stood there, arms crossed, saying nothing. Her silence struck me as hard as a slap and was just as painful.

Finally, I lost my temper. “You dare to stand there and talk to me about my thoughts and actions! You just made me sound like a cheap whore you used for your own amusement, just like…like that camp follower you bedded in Larissa.”

“Anteia?” Xena offered, obviously in shock at my outburst.

“I’m surprised you even remembered her name!”

“Why are you bringing her into this?”

“You promised me you wouldn’t treat me the same way as you treated her. Well, you treated me worse!” My voice cracked and tears flowed down my cheeks. “You may not have meant those words, but they still hurt me.”

If Xena had said ‘sorry’ or just had shown me some tenderness, I would’ve forgiven her everything. Instead, Xena stood there playing the part of outraged sovereign.

“You know what I expect of you in public. You know that how I am in public is different to how I am when we are alone. I thought you understood the situation.”

I let out a hollow laugh. “Is that what this is, Xena? A ‘situation’?”

“Don’t be facetious.” Xena scolded me as if I were a naughty child.

“Oh! That’s me put in my place then!” I said sarcastically.

“Gabrielle, this is no time for one of your little spats,” Xena replied.

“And that’s another thing. I’m sick of your patronising and I’m sick of you treating me like a possession. You care more about your sceptre than you do about me.”

By this time, everyone in camp, even Terreis, had gathered around to see what was going on. Xena and I were standing toe-to-toe shouting at each other like we were on opposite sides of a deep crevasse. I felt so humiliated and angry that I was way beyond caring who was around to hear us argue.

“Terreis doesn’t treat me like that. She treats me as an equal, as a friend. And she doesn’t care who sees her when she does.”

“That’s because she is using you to get to me,” Xena argued.

“I forgot, I’m sorry – this is all about you! It’s your empire, your world. I’m just your ‘leftovers’!”

“That’s not what I meant and you know it!” Her finger punctuated the air in frustration.

Suddenly, everything became very quiet. The Amazons held their collective breaths waiting to see what was going to happen next.

I took my emotions off boil and asked her quietly and sincerely, “What did you mean, Xena?”

Xena gestured to the circle of women standing around us. “This is neither the time nor the place, Gabrielle.” There was no venom in her voice.

“You picked the time and place, Xena.”

Xena didn’t come back with an angry rebuff or a sarcastic comment. She looked spent, weary of the battle.

I reached out and touched her forearm to get her to look at me. “For once, don’t worry about what others might think or say or do.”

I could tell Xena was very uncomfortable and conflicted. It showed in the furrows of her brow and the sadness in her eyes.

“For once, be honest,” I said, urging her to speak from the heart.

Still Xena stood there, fidgeting with the trim on her sleeves.

“For me.” I pleaded with her one last time to drop the lie and embrace the truth of what we shared.

But still she said nothing.

With as much dignity as I could muster, I held my head held high and turned to leave.

“Do not walk away from me.” Xena’s voice was almost a growl.

I didn’t even flinch as I ignored her and kept walking away.

“Gabrielle, I am warning you!”

I knew we had both crossed a line that would be difficult to repair. I had committed at least two cardinal sins in Xena’s book. Not only had I defied her in public again, but the true nature of our relationship was no longer in doubt.

Terreis came over to me. “Are you all right, Gabrielle?” she asked.

“Come on. Let’s go for that walk.”

Chapter 8
~~~~~~~~~~

Pride. It can be the heart of a nation like the Amazons – profound and noble. It can also be the destroyer of nations – and of love.

My need to protect my image in front of the Amazons and keep my relationship with Gabrielle secret had just blown up in my face. I had made a silly boast in front of Ephiny about bedding Gabrielle, and Gabrielle had overheard it. I did not mean it, but Gabrielle did not care. We had words. No, not just words, we had a lover’s quarrel in front of the entire assembly. Worse was that Terreis took advantage of the opportunity to drive a further wedge between Gabrielle and me.

When Gabrielle started walking away from me and towards Terreis, I felt a physical pain sharper than any dagger. I so desperately wanted to go after her, take her in my arms, beg her to forgive me for my boastful pride. Instead, I clung tightly to the pretence that we were merely sovereign and subject.

“Gabrielle, I am warning you!” I said through gritted teeth.

Terreis stepped around and put herself between Gabrielle and me. “Look, Xena, Gabrielle’s made it clear she’s not leaving with you.”

“Terreis, don’t!” Gabrielle protested.

“Trust me, you do not want to make me mad,” I warned the Amazon Queen.

“Xena, please,” Gabrielle pleaded.

“No, Gabrielle.” Terreis put her hand up and stopped Gabrielle. “Stay if you want to stay or go if you want to go, but do what you want.”

Gabrielle backed up a few steps and resolutely said, “I want to stay.”

The Amazon Queen faced me and said, “I think you better leave, Empress.”

“This is not your business, Terreis,” I snapped.

“I’m making it my business.”

“Is that a challenge?” I asked in a low, menacing growl. “Because if it’s not, then I am making one.” I grabbed a staff from a watching Amazon and moved towards Terreis.

“Xena, stop this,” pleaded Gabrielle.

“It’s okay, Gabrielle,” Terreis told her. “I can take her. Besides, a queen cannot refuse a challenge.”

She gestured for Eponin to throw her a staff.

An intimidating smile curled my lips as I twirled the staff to get a feel for its balance. Terreis circled around to my left and prepared herself to engage. Solari pulled Gabrielle out of the way while the others formed a circle around their queen and me.

I allowed Terreis to make the first strike. It was predictable – a strike to the right side of my head, which I easily blocked with the upper part of my staff. Her next strike was to my right shoulder. I deflected it and got in a strike of my own. Terreis scrambled to deflect the blow coming up towards her left hip. We struck and guarded back and forth like this for a few minutes, trying to get a read on our opponent.

Terreis was very easy to read; her eyes gave her away. They lacked the cunning of a predator.

“You fight like an old woman,” I teased her.

“At least I’ll get to be one,” she countered.

With shouts of encouragement from her sisters, Terreis launched a quick series of overhead and upper body strikes designed to catch me flat-footed, but I had no trouble keeping up my guard. I responded with a blistering attack – head, left knee, ribs, right shoulder. Terreis worked hard to keep up with me, but I managed to get past her defences and deliver a glancing blow to her left forearm.

Terreis was forced back to the edge of the clearing. Desperation showed on her face and she made a low swipe at my legs.

“Shee-yah!” I jumped into the air and did a back flip, landing easily out of reach.

With a frustrated yell, Terreis rushed at me. I deflected her blow and sidestepped her. As she moved past me, I caught her across the back sending her sprawling to the ground.

I taunted Terreis as she climbed to her feet. “Is that the best you can do?”

Terreis did not respond. She was beyond the banter stage now. No doubt, she realised I was the better fighter, but with that stubborn Amazon pride, she would die before admitting it.

She faced me with deadly seriousness and squared her shoulders, ready to resume. I stood casually, looking bored.

The Amazon Queen lunged at my stomach. I guarded my midsection and then feinted an overhead blow. As expected, Terreis guarded the overhead strike, leaving her chest wide open to a counter strike from me. The end of my staff caught her just below the ribs, forcing her to double over. Before she had a chance to recover I swung the staff with all my might and brought it down on her left shoulder. There was a loud, sickening crack as her collarbone broke.

To her credit, Terreis did not cry out. She did, however, let her guard down when she instinctively grabbed her upper left arm.

I stepped closer to press my advantage. Terreis tried one last attempt to stop me, which I blocked easily, sending her staff flying across the circle.

From the corner of my eye I could see the other Amazons tensing, but as much as they wanted to intervene, their code of honour prevented them.

Looming over the injured queen, I brought my arm back to deliver the killing blow to her head. Terreis, to her credit, looked me straight in the eye and accepted her fate.

“Stop!”

I had been so focussed on the fight I had almost forgotten Gabrielle. She pulled away from Solari and she threw herself between Terreis and me. Only my lightning reflexes brought the staff to a halt in time.

“Gabrielle, don’t,” said Terreis. Terreis tried pushing Gabrielle off her, but she was too weak and wounded.

“Don’t worry, I won’t let her kill you.” Gabrielle was speaking to Terreis but was looking straight at me.

“I’m the Amazon Queen, I cannot surrender,” the defeated warrior replied.

“You heard her, Gabrielle,” I said, “Move away.”

“No!” Gabrielle stood up and pushed me away. “I won’t let you kill her. Not over me!” Gabrielle angrily wiped away a tear that had slipped down her cheek.

My countenance appeared unmoved, but I was not unfeeling. With the wiping of that tear, I witnessed the death of the idealistic young girl who had joined my army and saw me as some kind of hero.

I had tried to shield her from the harsh realities of combat. I never wanted her to know the awful remorse of taking another person’s life for the first time, or to become numb to the death throes of an opponent as they writhe upon the end of your sword, or to look into the eyes of the enemy as their life force faded slowly, painfully, regretfully away.

“This is the way of the warrior, Gabrielle. Terreis understands this.” I glanced down at the wounded Amazon Queen, who nodded, seemingly resigned to her fate.

“I don’t believe that. If you kill her now, it isn’t just the fulfilment of your silly warrior’s code, it’s murder!”

Killing your opponent in a fight to the death was not murder, but Gabrielle was so distraught, I knew it was not the time to debate the point. I wanted to comfort her, to tell her she was the dearest thing in my life, but the look in her eyes told me I had damaged our relationship with my boasting and petty jealousy.

Hoping it would go someway to repair the damage, I did something for the very first time in my life. I dropped the staff. “I concede,” I said to Terreis.

For a moment the wounded Amazon Queen seemed confused by my action, but when she saw the hopeful gleam in Gabrielle’s eyes, Terreis nodded her acceptance.

I offered my hand to Gabrielle. “Come on. Let’s go home.”

“No.” Gabrielle said it softly but forcefully.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. After all I had just done – how I had humbled myself for her! What did she mean ‘no’?

Gabrielle turned her attention to Terreis as if her words had dismissed me. “Here. Let me help you,” she murmured as she helped the wounded Amazon to her feet.

“Gabrielle,” I croaked. My voice sounded lost, like a whisper in a hurricane.

“You may be my empress – my ‘friend’ – but you don’t own me. I’ll come home in my own time.”

I was rocked to the core. Such blatant defiance of my position was tantamount to treason. Gabrielle had never undermined my authority to that extent in private, let alone in public before. But to do it in front of the Amazons was unforgivable.

I had promised Gabrielle that I would never again raise a hand to her; however, pride and reputation demanded that I take action and punish Gabrielle that instant. I could even see that the watching Amazons expected me to react in such a manner. It was a stark choice: punish Gabrielle or lose face in front of a potential enemy.

With righteous provocation, I raised the back of my hand. Gabrielle looked up at me, unflinching. I could see in her soft green eyes she knew she had hurt me and she was sorry, but there was also a steely resolve there that she was in control of what she did. And I saw love. That is when I realised this beautiful young woman in front of me was the only thing in my life that was worth more than my pride.

I lowered my hand.

I watched as Gabrielle helped Terreis to her feet. The Amazon Queen smiled at me – a smile that said ‘you may have won the fight, but I’ve won Gabrielle’.

As much as I itched to wipe that smug look off Terreis’ face and drag Gabrielle home, I didn’t. Instead, I turned on my heels, and pushed my way out of the crowd.

~~~~~

I rode back to the palace alone, angry, and frustrated. I stormed past guards, barked at servants, shut myself up in my chambers, and proceeded to numb my wounded pride with several jugs of port.

At some point I must have fallen asleep and I awoke to a noise coming from the direction of the door to my chambers. For a fleeting moment, I thought it was Gabrielle come to apologise and beg me to forgive her. To my disappointment, it was only a servant. She was on her hands and knees cleaning up a puddle of spilled wine.

“Just leave it!” I yelled, which immediately sent pain reverberating around my head. “And get out.”

I pulled the covers over my head and tried to sleep off my misery.

The next morning I was again awakened by a noise. This time it was a guard.

“Do you have a death wish?”

“My apologies, Your Highness, but General Darnell needs to see you. I told him you didn’t want to be disturbed, but he was rather insistent.”

“Very well, but give me a few minutes to freshen up and then show the General in,” I replied.

Splashing cold water on my face did not do anything to ease the excruciating pain behind my eyes, but the bracing cold sobered me up enough to open them.

“Good morning, Your Highness.” The General gave me a casual salute.

I massaged my pounding temples, trying not to wince. “General,” I replied.

“Rough night?” He asked. Darnell’s sceptical eyes gave me a good looking over. In our conquest days, Darnell, Braextus, and I had spent many and many a night drinking ourselves blind. He knew the signs.

“You could say that.”

“No offence, but you look like death warmed up.” He stepped over to the refreshment table and poured a goblet of wine. “Here, drink this.” He offered it to me. “A hair of the dog.”

“No! Thanks.” I felt nauseous at the thought.

“Mind if I?” He lifted his cup.

I managed a slight, albeit painful, nod.

He drank the wine heartily and then wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Ahh, that hit the spot,” he said of the wine. “So, what are we drinking to? Do we have a treaty yet?”

I didn’t answer. My headache began pounding anew at the mention of that accursed treaty with the Amazons. I never should have agreed to it, then Gabrielle would not have met Terreis, we would not have had a huge fight, and I would not have to listen to I told you so from Darnell.

“I didn’t think so,” he responded. “Mind if I sit down?”

“No, sit.” I gestured towards two chairs.

“How long have we known each other – eleven years?”

“Yes, something like that,” I offered.

“In that time I have served you well, fought by your side, watched your back – true?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I’m watching your back now. So allow me to speak with the plainness of a soldier.”

“All right.”

“Forget the treaty. There is nothing the Amazons can give us that we can’t easily take for ourselves.” He paused to gauge my reaction, and seeing that I was not bristling at his candour, he continued. “Our forces are already assembling in Vólos. We could be fully deployed in Lydia within the week. And with the Amazon Queen as our hostage, we could negotiate the Amazons’ surrender without expending any resources.”

I listened to what my military advisor had to say and what he said made sense. Unfortunately, it was not as easy as all that. Gabrielle was too invested in the treaty. She would never forgive me if I went back on my word to the Amazons. And if I actually took Terreis hostage, that would be the end of our relationship for good.

Gods, my head felt like it would split wide open! I thought.

“Your idea has merit, Darnell. But it is not that simple.”

He jumped in. “Yes, it is that simple. As long as I’ve know you, you’ve had one goal and that was to conquer and rule an empire that stretched from horizon to horizon.” The General emphasised his point by circling his arm from East and West. “Don’t let anything or anyone distract you.”

His meaning was clear. Darnell made little effort to disguise his disdain for Gabrielle, but I was too tired to argue with him.

“I will give your idea some serious thought,” I said as I got up out of the chair. This prompted Darnell to get up as well. “Now, if you will excuse me, General, I would like to take a bath.”

“Yes of course, Your Highness.” He saluted and then walked towards the door, but before he left, he turned and said, “I wouldn’t take too long though. My spies tell me that the Persian Army is already moving westward towards the Bosporus. So, when you are thinking about things, ask yourself if you want to be The Conqueror or the conquered.”

~~~~~

As I lay in the bath my splitting headache eased to a slow pulsing throb.

Servants popped their heads in to the bathroom from time to time, to see if I wanted more hot water, but I dismissed them. Even the cold water was soothing.

Eventually I climbed out of the bath, grabbed a robe and wandered back to my bedchambers.

It was the middle of the afternoon and I realised I had not eaten all day. I ordered a servant to bring me something from the kitchen and sat down on the bed.

Some minutes later the servant returned with a large tray. She placed it on the table and curtsied.

“Your food, My Liege.”

I stood up and sauntered over.

“Will there be anything else, My Liege?”

I looked down at the tray. “Why is there so much?”

“Won’t Miss Gabrielle be joining you?”

I rounded on the servant. “Do you see her here?”

“N-no, My Liege.” She tried to back away but a chair blocked her way.

I raised my hand and the servant let out a short cry and closed her eyes, bracing herself for my strike. It never came. Raising my hand brought back all the painful recollections of the previous night. The aching in my head flared to a stabbing pain behind my left eye.

“Go,” I whispered.

The servant opened one eye and fearfully looked at me. “My Liege?”

“I said go!” I yelled, which I immediately regretted.

“Yes, My Liege. I’m sorry, My Liege.” She scurried away

I do not know how long I stood at the table, one hand supporting me, the other trying to ease the pounding in my skull, but when the pain eventually subsided the sun had already set.

I didn’t touch the food; instead I staggered to my bed, pulled the sheets over my head, and fell into a fitful sleep.

~~~~~

The following morning I awoke feeling sober but rotten. I had not seen Gabrielle for over a day. My mind was torn in two with what to do. The argument needed to be resolved, but I felt I should not be the one to apologise first. Gabrielle obviously felt the same.

I decided to go for a walk in the centre courtyard, as that was where I would most likely meet Gabrielle. If she saw me it would give her a chance to apologise.

As I stood by the carp pond I heard footsteps behind me. From the heavy footfall on stone, I knew it was not Gabrielle.

“Empress.”

“Commander Galates. At ease.” I acknowledged his salute.

Galates reported some mundane palace business that I have no recollection of. My mind was elsewhere.

When it appeared that he had finished his report, I asked nonchalantly, “Have you seen Gabrielle today?”

“No, she’s still at the Amazon camp.” Galates sounded a bit perturbed. “And if I may be so bold, it’s time you went and asked her to come back.”

I hadn’t realised Gabrielle had not returned from the Amazons yet. This news made my anger boil and poor Galates was there to take the brunt. I grabbed the front of his uniform and snarled, “By the gods, I will not be spoken to like that by you or anyone else!”

The port had not dulled the memory of Gabrielle’s open defiance the previous evening. “You have a privileged position, but do not assume that gives you license to talk to me that way. I do not care whose friend you are.”

Galates swallowed hard but looked me right in the eye. “With all due respect Empress, someone needs to say it to you.” He wasn’t going to be bullied by me. In that respect he was just like Gabrielle.

I released the soldier and spotted a nearby bench and sat down to gather my thoughts. “What makes you think she will want to come back?”

“She loves you,” he replied.

I sighed heavily. “Not after the argument we had. I said some pretty harsh things.”

“Knowing Gabrielle, she probably didn’t pull any punches, either.”

I made a weak attempt at a smile. “No, she didn’t. And now she has left me, and it may be for good.”

“No, Your Highness, not for good. If I am certain of anything, I am certain that Gabrielle loves you.”

“Are you implying that I do not love her?” My ire started to rise again but I pushed it back down. “No, you are not,” I answered for him. It was as close to an apology as he was going to get at that time. “It is a difficult situation I find myself in, Galates. As much as I love Gabrielle, as much as I want to declare that love to all, I cannot. There is a more at stake than just my happiness; I have an empire to consider. Why does Gabrielle not understand that?”

“Because Gabrielle is without pretence,” said Galates. “She sees things how they should be and acts accordingly. I guess it’s naivety on her part that she expects others to see things that way too. She doesn’t see the need to make things complicated.”

“That’s one of Gabrielle’s most endearing qualities,” I admitted with a wistful smile. “She can’t see why we cannot be open about our feelings.” I averted my gaze. In opening up to Galates I was doing the very thing that Gabrielle wanted – being honest. It was hard for me to do.

“She accused me of treating her like a possession,” I continued. “She doesn’t understand. I am trying to protect her. You are a soldier – you understand.”

“Yes, Empress.”

“I admit, I need to maintain control, but I also need Gabrielle. It looks like I cannot have both.”

“You can have control of your empire, Highness, and you can have Gabrielle. You just can’t have control of Gabrielle.”

I looked up at the soldier. He was staring off into the distance as he spoke.

“She’s braver than any soldier I’ve met,” he continued. “She knew she wasn’t meant to be a farmer’s wife, so she took control of her life and did something about it. She knew you were not just ‘The Conqueror’; that you could love and be loved.” His cheeks flushed and he risked a quick look in my direction.

“Carry on,” I put him at his ease.

“Gabrielle is like a…” He paused as he thought about what he wanted to say. He frowned. “She just sees things differently from everyone else. Do you understand what I’m saying, My Liege?”

I pondered the Lt. Commander’s words. “I think so. Gabrielle does not accept the world as it is; she sees the world as it should be and then does something about it. Who else could walk into my camp, demand a job and get one? Who else could walk into my life, demand my heart and take it?”

“Yes, Gabrielle is a force unto herself,” Galates agreed.

That was an understatement, and we both chuckled.

“Thank you, Commander.”

“For what?” he asked.

“For putting your neck between the tiger’s jaws,” I said.

“You’re welcome,” he replied simply. So, shall I tell the stable master to have your horse saddled right away, Your Highness?”

“Make it mid-morning. My head is still a little delicate.”

Chapter 9
~~~~~~~~~~

I had never been so humiliated, so embarrassed, or so scared. What had started as a pleasant afternoon enjoying the hospitality of the Amazons and their queen, ended with an awful and very public argument between Xena and me. We certainly have had disagreements before, but we always managed to work things out. This time, however, it was different. Xena was as proud and intractable as I was stubborn and defiant, and things were said that could not easily be forgiven or forgotten. What made it worse was we argued in front of the entire Amazon camp. Terreis intervened, much to the annoyance of Xena and before I knew what was happening they were squaring up to each other with staffs. The fight resulted in a serious injury to Terreis’ collarbone, and quite possibly a charge of treason for defying the will of my Empress.

After setting her queen’s broken collarbone, N’Gila, the Amazons’ healer, gave me instructions on how to prepare willow bark tea for the pain. She had the others fashion a backboard out of branches so Terreis could sit up more comfortably in bed.

N’Gila gathered her healer’s kit and meticulously returned each item to an assigned spot in the leather satchel she had carried in. Meanwhile, Ephiny and I helped Terreis get settled on her pallet.

When N’Gila was finished she turned to Ephiny and me. “Someone should stay with the Queen tonight. That collarbone needs time to set, so I don’t want her moving about too much.”

“I’ll stay with her,” I said. It was the least I could do, and besides I wasn’t too anxious to get back to the palace and face Xena.

Ephiny’s usual stoic toughness gave way to a tender concern for her queen. She knelt down and patted Terreis’ good arm. “You’re in good hands.” Ephiny glanced my way and then back at her queen. “If you need anything, have Gabrielle send for me.”

Terreis looked into her sister’s worried eyes. “Please don’t worry. I’m fine,” she replied.

Ephiny gave Terreis’ arm another gentle squeeze before she stood up. “I’m going to see to our defences. I doubt the Empress will attack, but I want to be ready just in case.” Ephiny nodded to me and then left.

“And I’ll be going as well,” the healer announced. “I’m just across the clearing if you need me.”

Finally, I was alone with Terreis. It was the first opportunity I had to apologise and explain.

“I am so sorry, Terreis. This was all my fault.”

“What was your fault?”

“The argument, your collarbone. I have a talent for causing trouble.”

“I think Xena had something to do with it. And it was no trouble, the entertainment came with the meal,” Terreis said with an impish grin.

“I don’t know how you can sit there and joke after what happened,” I replied.

Terreis’ smile got broader. “Because sitting is about all I can do right now.”

I appreciated her efforts to make light of the situation, but I saw no humour in the situation. “That was a foolish thing you did,” I admonished her.

“What do you mean?”

“Fighting Xena. You were ready to let her kill you all because of some stupid warrior’s code.”

“Some things are worth fighting and dying for,” Terreis replied, “like protecting your way of life and the lives of the people you love.”

“Yeah, I suppose. But what about all the things you said about words ending wars and weapons prolonging them?” I reminded her.

“I never said I wasn’t a warrior, Gabrielle. I couldn’t rule the Amazons if I couldn’t fight. But I do believe all those things we’ve talked about.”

“You barely know me, and yet you risked your life. I don’t understand.”

“Ask yourself the same question. You barely know me, and yet you risked your life to save mine. Why?”

I sat down beside Terreis and pondered her words. Jumping in front of Terreis as Xena stood over her ready to deal a killing blow had been instinctive. It wasn’t something I thought through. “I don’t know. I didn’t really have time to think. I just reacted,” I replied.

“That’s right. When those you care about are in danger, you will do anything to protect them. You, Gabrielle, reacted with a Warrior’s Heart – brave, compassionate, self-sacrificing,” Terreis explained.

“I never thought about it like that.”

Terreis must’ve sensed my sudden pensiveness, because she inched closer and tenderly patted my leg. “It might do you good to talk about it.”

“Talk about what?”

“You and Xena.”

“What about me and Xena…uh, I mean the Empress?”

“You don’t have to pretend any longer, Gabrielle. I think ‘the ship has left the wharf’ on that secret.”

“Yeah. I guess our argument gave it away,” I said wearily.

Terreis started laughing.

“Why are you laughing?”

“Because my friend, I suspected it from the first day we all met. It was the way you looked at her.”

“How do I look at her?”

“The way anyone would wish you to look at them – with love.”

I was stunned to learn that all my efforts to conceal my feelings for Xena in public had been for naught. “We were very careful not to reveal that part of our relationship.” Xena’s choice not mine, I thought.

“And you two weren’t very successful. It was obvious to all who have eyes to see.”

I reacted with genuine surprise. “But you never said anything.”

Terreis shrugged her shoulders and that made her wince in pain from the broken collarbone.

“Ooh, Terreis. Be careful. Here let me get you some more pillows.” I gathered up a few more cushions and put them behind Terreis’ back and under her slinged arm.

“Thanks,” Terreis said as she leaned back against the mound of pillows.

“If you love Xena, why are you here? Why didn’t you leave with her?” she asked.

I didn’t have to think about my reply. “Because I want to be loved by her, not possessed by her.”

Once I started opening up about my feelings for Xena I couldn’t stop. I tried to speak in a slow, measured voice, but the words came too fast for my brain, and I rambled from one point to another.

“All my life I had fought to be accepted for who and what I was and not conform to what was expected of me. My parents and that farmer they wanted me to marry never understood me. They thought I was rebellious, high-spirited – even eccentric. Xena had been the first to see me for what I could be, or so I thought. It turned out Xena wanted to control me just like everyone else in my life had tried to do. She said she wanted to keep our relationship private because it would be dangerous if her enemies found out. In public she wanted us to be Empress and Advisor and I thought I could accept that. In private she was different… most of the time. She can’t, or won’t, let herself show her true feelings.”

As I rambled, Terreis listened, despite the pain she must’ve been feeling. I stopped talking and made her a cup of willow bark tea like N’Gila had shown me.

“Here, drink this. It may not help the pain in your shoulder, but it might help the pain of having to listen to me jabber on about my troubles.”

Terreis tried to take the cup from me, but she had trouble holding it in her good hand, so I held it up to her lips.

“Thanks,” the Amazon Queen said when she had taken a few sips. She leaned back on the pillows. “As you were saying.”

“I think I’ve said enough already. You need to rest.”

“No, I’m fine. Please. It takes my mind off my shoulder.”

“Well, if it helps,” I replied. Night had fallen and the air was getting chilly. I picked up a blanket and carefully draped it around Terreis’ shoulders and settled back again facing Terreis and continued. “Do you think I’m foolish for loving Xena? For thinking my love could change her?” I asked myself as much as Terreis.

Terreis looked me straight in the eye with an earnest expression. “It is no easy thing to risk your heart by giving it to another. Falling in love takes faith and courage – hardly the attributes of a fool. So no, Gabrielle, you’re not foolish.” Terreis’ eyes twinkled as she added, “For thinking you can change her, perhaps, but not for loving her.”

“Falling in love was the easy part. Now, building a relationship with Xena, that’s the hard part.”

Terreis chuckled. “I can imagine.”

I hadn’t meant it as a joke but I allowed myself a slight smile. “You know, Xena did try, at least a little, but I was too angry and stubborn to acknowledge it.”

“What do you mean?” Terreis asked.

“I mean, during the argument. Xena was trying very hard to control her temper-”

“If that was controlled, I’d hate to see out of control!” Terreis interjected.

“Oh, believe me…just her icy stare alone could make the Nile freeze!” I replied.

I immediately regretted the joke when I saw Terreis wince and grab her arm. “Ooh, I’m sorry, Terreis. I promise not to say anything even remotely humorous for the rest of the night.”

“No, that’s okay, After all, laughter is good medicine,” Terreis replied.

“I wish laughter could fix this mess I’m in,” I said, which made me think about Xena again. “Perhaps I should go back to the palace tonight and try to sort things out with Xena. But what if she’s really angry because I defied her in public? Or worse… Xena’s paranoid about anyone finding out about the two of us, and now everyone here knows. I hate to think what she’d do. Maybe I should go and apologise right away. But why should I apologise first? It takes two to have an argument, so it’s her fault as much as it is mine.” I was getting myself all worked up again. “Oh, Terreis, I don’t know what to do.”

“Look, don’t worry about what to do right now,” Terreis replied with a comforting tone, like a mother promising to make it all better. “It’s late,” she continued, “it’s dark, and you’re in no shape to go another round with Xena. So, stay here tonight. Things may be clearer to you after a good night’s sleep.”

~~~~~

Terreis managed to get some sleep, thanks to the willow bark tea. However, I lay awake all night making sure Terreis didn’t hurt her arm by rolling over in her sleep. Not that I would’ve got any sleep anyway; the events of the previous day kept playing over and over in my mind.

Hour upon hour I waited and wondered and worried. I had hoped Xena would come riding back into camp and try to make things right between us, but Xena never came.

As darkness gave way to dawn, hope gave way to despair. Questions swirled around inside my head like the Furies trying to drive me mad. Should I go and apologise? Why should I apologise, I did nothing wrong? How did things get to be such a mess? Do I show up for the morning council meeting and act like nothing had happened?

Seeing how edgy and unsettled I was Terreis suggested I release some of my pent up frustrations on the practice field.

“A bit of weapons practice helps me to focus,” she said.

“But Xena never wanted to teach me how to use weapons. She says ‘…picking up a weapon makes you a target’, and ‘…if you pick up a weapon, be prepared to kill.'”

Terreis replied, “She’s right, it does, but every Amazon learns the basics of fighting, even if they do not become warriors. Like N’Gila – she’s a healer, but she knows how to use weapons in case she ever needed to defend herself or her village. Besides, it is only in knowing about weapons, firsthand, that one can be a truly effective peacemaker.”

“That’s very true. And come to think of it, if I expect the officers of the Civil Protection Force to know how to use a weapon, then I should know a little of what I speak.”

Ephiny and Solari were already in the centre sparring with swords. When I first met Ephiny, I was convinced she didn’t like me, though I was at a loss as to why. Terreis had assured me that the warrior with the curly blonde hair wasn’t as stern and surly as she appeared, but was really very nice once you got to know her.

Ephiny and Solari were putting on quite a display for the other Amazons gathered around.

At first, it appeared Solari was the more aggressive attacker and Ephiny more agile. Ephiny seemed content to wait for Solari to advance and then dodge Solari’s thrusts. Solari answered by making short, quick jabs to Ephiny’s mid-section. Ephiny parried and deflected Solari’s attack, and then immediately came back with an overhead cut that had Solari scrambling out of the way to guard her head.

Our arrival distracted Ephiny for just a moment, allowing Solari to slip past Ephiny’s defences.

“Shit!” Ephiny hissed and looked down at the blood oozing from a gash on her upper left arm.

Solari immediately lowered her sword. “Sorry, Eph. I was expecting you to guard against the left shoulder cut.”

Ephiny dropped her sword in the dirt and clamped her hand over the wound to try and stop the bleeding.

“Shall I fetch the healer?” Solari offered.

Ephiny shrugged off her sister’s concern. “It’s nothing – just a scratch.”

Terreis and I approached them. Blood was still seeping between Ephiny’s fingers, so I knew her injury was more than just a scratch. Before Ephiny could object, I tore a strip of cloth from my tunic and bound up her arm. “There, that should help stop the bleeding.”

Ephiny didn’t say anything. She just glowered at me.

“Aren’t you going to thank Gabrielle?” Terreis chided.

“What for?”

“For tending your injury.”

“I didn’t ask her to.”

“No thanks are necessary,” I offered, knowing how important it was for a warrior to save face.

Terreis gave Ephiny a disapproving look. “Since it’s only a scratch, why don’t you give Gabrielle a staff lesson?”

“Me? Why me?”

“Because I can’t.” Terreis pointed to her bandaged shoulder. “Besides, you are the best by far with the staff. Who better to teach our honoured guest?”

“She has no business being here. She’s not an Amazon and she’s certainly no warrior.”

“Teach her.”

Ephiny glared at me with a disdainful look before obeying her queen. “Solari, hand me my staff.”

Solari crossed the sparring ring and retrieved this finely hewed staff with a hawk’s head carving on top. “Here,” the shorter Amazon said as she handed the weapon to Terreis’ second in command.

“Thanks.” Ephiny replied. She then started twirling the staff at a dizzying pace, from hand to hand, above her head, around her waist. She gave quite an impressive demonstration. She ended by doing a series of fighting forms, ending with an overhead manoeuvre that stopped within a cat’s whisker of my left ear. To my credit, I didn’t flinch. I think that impressed her. It certainly impressed me.

Most of the Amazons in camp had gathered to watch once the word got out that Ephiny was teaching me to fight with a staff. They cheered the tall, strawberry-blonde warrior as she gave her performance.

Ephiny moved the staff away from my head and said, “This is a fighting staff. It came to me when my mother was killed in battle, and she in turn received it from her mother when she came of age. It has saved my life many times.” She held it out toward me. “Here, take it. Get the feel of it.”

“My, it’s beautiful,” I said, admiring the detail along the shaft as I examined it more closely, “a work of art.”

“That it may be, but make no mistake, little girl. It is not a toy. It is a lethal weapon.”

“Okay, so show me how to use it.”

“Fine.” Ephiny yanked her staff from my hands and handed it back to Solari, who exchanged it for two rather plain-looking practise staffs. Ephiny gave one to me and pointed to where I should stand.

“Lesson one. Stand with your feet spread about shoulder width apart. Make sure your weight is evenly distributed and hold the staff in both hands across your chest.”

I got into the stance, or I thought I had. Terreis, who had been watching from the sideline came behind me and helped me stand with my right foot slightly forward and my left hand higher than my right. As she moved around behind me to position my other hand I caught her scent, the virile underlying leather of her outfit was mixed with a gentle, flowery aroma. It was another contradiction to the warrior image she projected.

I turned and thanked her kindly.

Terreis leaned in and offered some encouragement. “Just remember to keep your feet firmly on the ground and your stick high and in front and you should survive your first lesson.”

“Thanks, you’re a big help,” I said sarcastically.

“What are friends for?” Terreis replied as she walked back to join the crowd around the circle.

The first blow from Ephiny knocked the staff from my hands.

“If that was for real you’d be dead by now,” sniped the Amazon. “Pick it up.”

I did as I was told and took up my position. The next blow sent a shock like an earthquake through my arms, into my body and down to my feet.

“That’s better,” said Ephiny. “But any real attack will not be directed at your staff.” She gave my staff a gentle tap as she said it. “They can come from any direction.”

Ephiny’s arms became a blur and the next thing I knew her staff had come to a halt an inch from my left ear.

“The point of using the staff,” continued Ephiny, moving her staff back to her side, “is to defend yourself from attack, create an opening in your opponent’s defence and exploit that opening. I’ll show you what I mean. Take a swing at me.”

“What?”

Ephiny glared. “Attack me!”

I glanced at Terreis and she nodded encouragement. I shrugged my shoulders and stepped forward, swinging my staff down from the left. Ephiny blocked my strike easily.

“Right,” she explained, “I’ve defended myself from your attack. If I do this…” Ephiny demonstrated by twisting her staff and ripping mine from my grip. “…I create an opening allowing me to attack you. Do you understand?”

“Yes, that makes sense.”

“Good. Pick it up!”

I retrieved my staff and got ready again.

And again Terreis stepped behind me and corrected my stance. “Hold it firmly, but not too tight,” she said as her fingers eased my grip on the staff. “You can break a wrist from the shock if your staff is struck and you’re gripping it that tightly.”

“Who’s giving the lesson here?” Ephiny said impatiently.

“Ooh, sorry. You are.” Terreis replied sheepishly and backed away.

Ephiny remembered her manners and thanked the Amazon Queen for pointing the grip issue out, and then she turned her attention back to me. “We’ll go through defensive moves first. I’ll attack from various angles and you block. We’ll start from the left.”

“Okay. Wait!”

Ephiny stopped and glared at me. “What?”

“Is that my left or your left?”

Ephiny rolled her eyes. “Your left. Ready?” Ephiny swung and I blocked. “Your right.” Her staff moved rapidly to my right and I moved mine to block it. “Left. Right. Left. Right.”

As the lesson continued Ephiny increased the speed of her attacks. “Left-Right-Left.”

I moved to block from the left and felt a prod on my right as Ephiny attacked on my exposed side.

“Hey! You said left!”

Ephiny regarded me coolly. “Most important lesson: Always be aware of where your opponent’s weapon is. In a real fight they’re not going to be telling where they’re going to attack from.”

“Ephiny is right,” said Terreis. “But she could have explained that without trying to make you look foolish.”

Ephiny bristled. “This is how we teach Amazons to become warriors. We do not coddle them. We challenge them. If Gabrielle is too fragile, then perhaps she should put down the staff and stick to quills.”

“Gabrielle is not a warrior, Ephiny,” Terreis replied, “you could go a little easier on her.”

Looking over my shoulder, I addressed Terreis. “No, Ephiny’s right, Your Highness. I don’t expect any special treatment.”

I turned back around and faced Ephiny again, repositioning my feet and hands as I had been instructed to do. “Shall we have another go?”

The lesson continued in a similar vein with Ephiny adding new directions of attack. My confidence grew as I learned to anticipate Ephiny’s moves. On one attack I felt Ephiny’s grip on her staff was slightly lighter than the previous attack and without thinking, instead of defending, I attacked Ephiny’s weaker, injured side with a quick combination: high – high – low. Ephiny must’ve been anticipating me to go low again, but I changed up and went high. Ephiny’s staff clattered to the ground and my staff connected with the bandage on the Amazon’s left arm.

The spectators watching us started laughing and clapping, but Ephiny didn’t react to them. She was too busy clutching her injury trying to stop the flow of fresh blood oozing from beneath the dressing.

“I’m so sorry!” I felt mortified. I dropped my staff and went over to Ephiny. “Here, let me bind it again.” I went to rip another strip off my tunic, but Ephiny’s strong hand stopped me.

“That won’t be necessary,” she said sternly. There was a faint twinkle in her eye. “That was very good,” she whispered.

The other Amazons had reached us by this time and Solari took great delight in teasing Ephiny. “She got you a good one.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ephiny groused.

Solari clapped me on the shoulder. “We won’t let Ephiny forget this one. That was an inspired move.”

“Thanks,” I muttered. “I didn’t really plan-”

“I think we can end the lesson now,” said Terreis. “Ephiny will need to have N’Gila tend that wound.”

“You mean her pride,” Eponin added.

Ephiny glowered at me as she left the practice area, but it was only for show in front of her comrades, because there was also a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.

~~~~~

Eponin had taken over teaching me while Ephiny was with the healer, and she said I showed a lot of promise. Terreis was right, sparring did help to release some pent up frustrations, and at least for a few hours it took my mind off my troubles. That’s because I had to concentrate on not getting too banged and bruised.

We took a break from the staff lesson for a while to have something to eat. There was plenty of food left over from the feast the day before. Terreis suggested we pack a lunch and go find that waterfall she wanted to show me yesterday. It was still early enough for me to get back to the palace before dark, so I agreed to go but only if Terreis got the okay from N’Gila. I didn’t want to get halfway there and Terreis pass out or trip on a root or something.

“Don’t be silly, I’m fine,” Terreis said.

“No offence, but I want a second opinion before I let you go traipsing off into the woods with a broken collarbone,” I replied.

“All right, but I’m only doing this to humour you.”

While Terreis went to find the healer, I packed a small knapsack with enough flatbread, figs, apples, and goat cheese for two hearty appetites. Terreis returned a few minutes later with N’Gila’s blessing, and we set out on our hike. It wasn’t too far from camp – perhaps twenty minutes up a natural trail left by winter runoff. We followed the sound of rushing water until we came to a small waterfall near a rocky outcrop at the top of the hill. I climbed up first and then gave Terreis a helping hand up the last bit where it was steepest.

“This is a nice spot.” I said.

“Yes, isn’t it?” Terreis replied. “I found this place quite by accident, but when I saw it, I just knew I had to show it to you. It’s a place that speaks to a poet’s soul.”

I closed my eyes and listened for a moment to nature’s whispering voice among the sounds of cascading water, birdsong, and leaves rustling in the breeze. “Hmm, I see what you mean,” I said.

Terreis and I shared a look between us – a look of connection and understanding. In that moment I recognised a kindred spirit, someone who was able to reach inside and illuminate a corner of my soul long hidden in the shadows. It made me happy and a little sad at the same time.

Terreis broke the silence. “Shall we see what you brought for us to eat? I’m starved!”

“Sure,” I replied, feeling a little empty, but not for want of food.

I opened the knapsack and laid out the contents on a square of woven cloth.

“Wow, you’ve brought enough to feed a small army!” Terreis commented as she selected a large, firm apple.

Even though my stomach was growling, I played with my food more than ate it. I didn’t have much of an appetite, which for me was very unusual. Terreis picked up on it immediately.

“Not hungry? You couldn’t wait to eat yesterday,” Terreis teased.

“I don’t know,” I said, “I guess I’m a bit sore from the staff lesson this morning.”

“Do you want to see the healer when we get back?” asked Terreis.

“No, I don’t think N’Gila has something for what’s ailing me. Besides the best thing for sore muscles is to keeping them moving.”

I stood up and tossed the bits of bread I had been rolling up between my fingers instead of eating, and then I helped Terreis to her feet and packed up all the leftover food.

“We better head back before they send a search party out looking for their queen,” I said.

By the time we got back to camp, Terreis’ shoulder was hurting and my arms and legs were stiff, so she and I went back to her tent to rest. I couldn’t wait to get Terreis settled on her pallet so I could stretch my tired, achy muscles out along side her.

N’Gila, the healer, came in a few minutes later. “They told me you two were back.” On the other side of the tent there was a rough-hewn table. The tall thin woman placed her medicine bag on the table. “It’s a good thing I came along with all the walking wounded around here,” N’Gila said as she pulled a vial out and mixed it with warm water. “Here, My Queen, take this for the pain.”

“I don’t need it, I’m fine,” Terreis protested.

“Yes, I can tell from your grimace that you are,” N’Gila replied. She handed the drink to Terreis and gave her a stern look until Terreis had drunk the entire mixture down.

When Terreis was finished, N’Gila took the cup from her and took out another vial. “And as for you,” she said, turning to me. “I want you to take this.” She handed me a similar cup of warm liquid.

I took a sniff. It didn’t smell bad, just woody like tree bark or something, so I obediently drank it down. As I handed back the cup, I asked, “So what was that I just took?”

“Oh just a little something to help you relax,” she replied. She closed her bag and turned to leave. “Now, you two get some rest – healer’s orders.”

Both Terreis and I answered in unison. “Yes, ma’am,”

I settled on the cushions next to Terreis and closed my eyes. I opened them again what I thought was only a few moments later, but the sunlight coming in told me it had been much longer.

“Good morning,” said Terreis.

“Morning?” I jumped to my feet. “You mean, I’ve been asleep since yesterday afternoon?”

“Yes,” Terreis replied.

“Why didn’t you wake me? What did N’Gila put in that tea?”

“A little valerian, I should think. You obviously needed the rest.”

“By the gods, Xena will be frantic that I stayed away so long!”

“Xena?” Terreis made the name a question and an accusation at the same time. “If she were that concerned she would’ve come back for you.”

“You don’t know her like I do. She’s proud and stubborn. I need to go back. I need to make the first move.”

“Why?” Terreis asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Why go back. Why not come live with me – the Amazons, I mean.”

“Thank you…but no. My life is with Xena-”

“I know, I know,” Terreis cut in. “A seer told you that you meant to help a great warrior… But there’s more than one great warrior, Gabrielle. What if you were meant to be with another warrior?”

It never occurred to me that there might be another warrior. What if Terreis was right? What if Terreis was the warrior I was meant to follow and not Xena? I thought. Suddenly all the certainty and faith I had in my love for Xena was called into question. It felt as though the flesh had been stripped from my body and my bones were being pounded to dust.

“But Xena needs me.”

“From the looks of things, she doesn’t.”

“This treaty. It’s my idea. Without me she would walk all over you,” I countered forcefully before continuing in a gentler tone. “Can’t you see? I can do more with words than Xena can with a sword!”

Terreis shook her head. “Can’t you see she’s just used you like she uses everyone and everything to get what she wants, and when she’s through she leaves a wake of destruction.”

“No,” I whispered. “No. No. No!” With each word I clawed back what I knew to be right. “Xena is the one. I feel it in here.” I pounded my chest. “I’ve never felt this for anyone. Never! I don’t feel that way for…” I let my voice trail. “For you,” I whispered.

Terreis hung her head and took a deep breath. “I hope you’re right, because you could be making a mistake that will ruin your life and the lives of countless others if you support Xena in her conquests.”

“It won’t come to that. I can change her.”

A smile curled Terreis’ lips as she looked at me. “I believe you.”

“I think I’ll go back to the palace now. I need to talk to Xena.”

Terreis nodded. “I’ll walk you back.”

“That won’t be necessary.”

“Please. It’s the least I can do.”

“I’ll be safe. Don’t worry.”

“I know, but I feel a bit responsible. Besides I want to tell Xena that I’ll sign the treaty. Any reluctance I’ve shown in signing is because I didn’t trust her. Now that I know the treaty is your idea, I’ll trust Xena to honour it.”

Chapter 10
~~~~~~~~~~

Commanding armies, conquering kingdoms, controlling the lives of thousands. It is what the last twelve years of my life had been all about – my destiny fulfilled, or so I thought. The events of the past few days, however, made me realise that all I had achieved was built upon a foundation of sand, and whether by winds or by wearing away, my world was about to crumble.

It had been two miserable nights since I had last seen Gabrielle, but I could remember very little of it. Drinking large quantities of port had helped to blunt my anger, but it did nothing to dull the sting of Gabrielle’s defiance or my monumentally stupid boasting to Ephiny. I do remember that my loyal and courageous Commander of the Guards had given his Empress a polite but firm dressing down. Galates reminded me that my will may be law but I could not impose my will on Gabrielle – and I should not try. He helped me to see what Gabrielle was trying to say. I finally got that she wanted to be her own person, that she had a different way of approaching things, that I should not try to control her or treat her the way I do soldiers or servants. He helped me realise that life without Gabrielle was no life at all.

After I had dispensed with regular morning briefings, I sent word to have my horse saddled immediately. I had resolved to swallow my pride again go back to the Amazon camp and get – no ask Gabrielle to come back.

As I strode across the courtyard, a soldier I didn’t recognise approached me and gave me a crisp salute. He was not from the Palace Guards or the Corinth Garrison. This soldier was kitted out in full dress uniform and wore the colours of the Infantry.

“What is it, Sergeant…?”

“Timeas, ma’am. General Darnell sent me to let you know the transport ships have arrived and the forward element of the First Corinthian Infantry is ready to embark.”

“And?” I knew there was something I was forgetting, but it wasn’t coming to me.

Timeas’ eyes registered surprise. He spoke deliberately and slowly as if to prompt my memory. “Uh, and the troops are assembled on the parade field.” He paused. “General Darnell respectfully requests that you come now.” He paused again. “We will lose the tide if we delay any longer.”

It finally dawned on me what the sergeant was so tactfully trying to remind me. I felt like an idiot. The First Corinthian Infantry, two thousand soldiers strong, was being assembled east of the city, on the Aegean side of the isthmus. They were ready to set sail to Miletus in Ionia. From there, they would march north to Lydia and rendezvous with the Third Thracian Infantry, marching south from Thrace. The First Corinthian Infantry was to be the advance guard of a combined army that would begin the conquest of Anatolia. It was important for me, their Empress, to be there to give them a rousing send-off.

Silently I chided myself for becoming so distracted by personal matters that it had completely slipped my mind. “Yes, of course Sergeant. I was delayed by an urgent matter,” I said trying to cover my having completely forgot about the ceremony. “Ride ahead and inform General Darnell that I will be there presently.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Timeas replied, seemingly relieved that I had remembered.

This was further proof that I needed to resolve matters with Gabrielle and soon, before these personal distractions became a public embarrassment.

~~~~~

Within fifteen minutes, I was ready, my horse was ready, and my honour guard was ready. With a sense of urgency, I mounted the mare Gabrielle had named ‘Argo’ and kicked her into motion. Once out of the palace gates, I spurred my horse into a gallop, leaving my escort scrambling to catch up. I even passed Sergeant Timeas before he had reached the outskirts of Corinth.

I pulled up outside the command tent, dismounted, and strode in before the guards outside had barely raised their hands in salute. I was surprised to find General Darnell casually sitting and drinking with Ambassador Brutus, but not as surprised as the two of them seemed to be that I had arrived unannounced.

“Am I interrupting?” I asked.

“Your Highness.” Darnell quickly stood, straightened his uniform, and saluted. From the uncomfortable look on his face, it was obvious that my general did not want me to find him in conversation with the Roman Ambassador.

“Empress.” Brutus stood as well and offered a slight bow of his head.

“Where’s Sergeant Timeas?” asked Darnell, craning his neck to see around me. “I sent him-”

“I passed him on the road about ten minutes ago.”

The General called for an aide. “I want to know as soon as Timeas returns.”

Darnell’s jaw muscles tightened whenever he struggled to control his anger, so I knew Darnell would have Timeas flogged for allowing me to get here before him. And from the tone of his voice, I suspected Darnell was going to do it personally.

“And what brings Rome’s Ambassador to this camp?” I closed in on Brutus.

The Ambassador swallowed hard and cast a quick glance at Darnell. “I’ve come to… to wish your army success on its campaign.”

I took mental note of Brutus’ slight hesitation as he gave his explanation. Brutus was usually very glib – a pro at courtly one-upmanship. It wasn’t like him to stumble for words.

“That is very kind of you.” I wandered over to a side table and poured myself a cup of wine. I allowed a slight smile and raised my cup in a toast. “To a successful campaign, then.”

Brutus and Darnell picked up their cups and echoed, “Success.” The two men seemed to relax a bit after that, but there was still tension in the air.

“So, Brutus. What else brings you out here today?” I added casually.

Another quick glance passed between the two men, as though some secret code was being communicated. Brutus was usually the very definition of poised, but he seemed a bit nervous – on edge.

I had a feeling I knew what it was. “You are among friends. No need to be shy.”

Brutus adjusted his tunic and stood up straighter. “Well, you have been so busy lately with the Amazons, there hasn’t been much time to devote to the Roman matter?”

“‘Roman matter?'” I enjoyed baiting him.

“Yes, you know – Pompey. You said he wouldn’t last six months and that you would support my efforts to become Emperor. With your focus turning to the Persians, I wouldn’t want you to forget about the situation in Rome.”

I had to admire Brutus’ bravery. It was very ballsy of him to broach that subject with me – brave almost to the point of suicide.

Darnell took a step forward, placing himself between Brutus and me. “If I may, Highness, Ambassador?”

I nodded for him to carry on.

“What the Ambassador is concerned about is that there might be too many things distracting your attention and Pompey might not be so easy to get rid of if your forces are tied up in Persia. I was reassuring him when you arrived that you were in control of the situation.”

“Were you? Well done, General.”

Hmm, that was interesting, I thought, my general also had a real pair on him, stepping in to defend Brutus like that. It made me wonder how much of my plans had Darnell revealed. Brutus was not naïve. He had to know by now I had no intention of making him Emperor of Rome, unless it was in name only. My plan had always been to wait until there was enough dissent against Pompey and then take control of Rome outright. Brutus would be lucky to walk away with his life when I had finished.

Brutus moved to Darnell’s side. “Please don’t think I’m trying to rush you in this matter. I merely wanted to remind you, with all due respect, to think strategically, globally.”

A look passed between the Ambassador and Darnell that I couldn’t read. “And something else for you to consider. When I return to Rome, I’ll need an accomplished senior advisor- someone whom you and I can both trust. I thought General Darnell would be a very good candidate.”

That was not something I had anticipated. My gut still told me that Darnell was loyal to me. Still there was that annoying itch at the back of my brain – something was up. There were too many private meetings between my senior military advisor and the Ambassador. Yet if they were plotting against me, I was disappointed. I thought I had trained Darnell better than to hold treasonous meetings where there was even the remotest possibility of discovery.

I studied Brutus. He looked tense, but in control. Darnell was clenching his jaw and looking like he would rather be anywhere else.

I decided to remain silent but watchful. “I will take it under consideration. Now, shall we go and review the troops?”

~~~~~

General Darnell, Ambassador Brutus, and I took our places on the dais and watched as each unit of the First Corinthian Infantry marched past us. I set aside my troubles for a few moments to appreciate the scene before me. The field was a sea of crisp white and blue tunics with highly polished armour gleaming so brightly as to rival the sun. Each unit carried their banners proudly as they passed in review. And as they marched before me, the order was given and every soldier presented their arms in a salute to me, their Empress.

Even in this magnificent setting, my thoughts turned to Gabrielle. I found myself wishing she had been there to share that glorious moment with me, although Gabrielle would not have shared the immense pride I felt for these splendid soldiers. It was something that only a soldier understood. Still, I thought, I would rather have Gabrielle beside me, sharing in my triumphs and my setbacks. I had to find a way to make things right between us.

After the last unit had marched by and was back in formation, Darnell and I went out onto the parade field and inspected the troops.

Poor Darnell had trouble keeping the customary six paces behind and to my left, because I was motivated to get through it as quickly as possible. It was already past midday by this time, and I was anxious to get to the Amazon camp.

My address to the troops was short and to the point, yet I still managed to make it inspirational.

“… Today we stand upon the stage of history…” Soldiers started cheering.

“… Not since the days of Alexander the Great has the world been witness to the terrible power and might of the Greek Imperial Army…” With that all of the soldiers cheered.

“…The First Corinthian Infantry will be the vanguard in this great endeavour.” When I invoked the name of their unit. The entire corps started thumping their lances on their shields in unison.

“… And we will once again spread Greek culture and civilisation across the Anatolian peninsula and then to the rest of the world!”

I stood on the dais and waved to them as they chanted my name. “Xe-na! Xe-na! Xe-na!”

“…I will join you soon in Anatolia…until then, remember you are the soldiers of the Fighting First!”

My duties done, I needed to return to the palace to change, because the last thing I wanted was to send the wrong message to Gabrielle and the Amazons by turning up in full battle regalia. I begged off having drinks with the unit commanders and once again, I mounted Argo and spurred her into a gallop, leaving Darnell to oversee the embarkation.

By the time I had returned to the palace, it was already early afternoon. “So much for my plans,” I muttered as I dismounted. I handed the reins to the stable lad. “Wipe her down, feed and water her. I want to leave the palace again within the hour. If she is not ready to go then I want another mount ready.”

“Yes, My Liege.” The stable boy bowed as he backed away towards the stable.

I ran back to the main building and up the stairs to my chambers. My armour crashed to the floor as soon as the door closed behind me. A servant hurried to pick it up.

“Pick it up later! Get me a goblet of water!”

Helena let the breastplate hit the floor again and rushed to a nearby side table. She poured the water as I struggled with a lace on my wrist guard.

“My Liege, allow me.”

The servant handed me the goblet of water which I drank as she worked on the lace. As soon as it was loose enough I slipped it off, switched the goblet to my other hand and offered her my other arm. Once free of the other gauntlet I handed the goblet back to Helena. “Get me the black leather … And hurry!”

Having changed my clothes in record time, I set off for the stables. Unfortunately, I did not get too far.

Galates came striding towards me. “Your Highness…”

“Not now, Galates. I am in a rush.”

“There is someone wishing to speak to Gabrielle. He says it’s urgent.”

What did the gods have against me today? I wondered. “Who wants to see her?” I asked.

“Larrius.”

Larrius was one of three former dissidents Gabrielle had taken on to help her. Gabrielle credits him with the idea for the Civilian Protection Force.

“Where is Darphus?” I asked. “He should handle this if Gabrielle is not around.”

“I couldn’t find him, Empress.”

“Then you handle it, Commander.”

“I’m sorry, Highness. Larrius said it was ‘for Advisor Gabrielle only.'”

All these infuriating delays had succeeded in putting me in a very surly mood, so if this ‘urgent message’ ended up being a colossal waste of my time, Larrius was going to feel the business end of my boot up his arse.

“Very well, I will speak to him,” I told Galates.

“He’s in Gabrielle’s office.”

I took a deep, frustrated breath and headed down the stairs. My patience was nearly spent by the time I entered the office. Larrius probably sensed my frustration, because when he saw me, his ruddy complexion turned decidedly pale.

“Your Highness,” he gasped in surprise. “I-I-I was expecting Advisor Gabrielle.”

“Well, she is not here. What is your message?”

“It’s… um… I’m not sure… I…” His dithering really started to annoy me.

“Does Advisor Gabrielle not answer to me?” I barked.

Galates entered the office. His presence probably saved me from grabbing Larrius and beating him senseless.

Larrius lowered his head and trembled in his sandals. “Yes, Your Highness.”

The irony was not lost on me that a few months ago this same man stood before me, condemned as a dissident. I was ready to crucify him for his treason, but Gabrielle was more lenient on the man and gave him a job in my government.

“Then tell me, and be quick about it.”

Larrius took a deep breath. “I’ve just come back from Thessalia. Advisor Gabrielle had sent me there on a secret mission. She wanted me to report to her immediately if I found problems.”

“Problems? What sort of problems?”

Gabrielle’s agent seemed reluctant to say at first, but he was forthcoming when I fixed him with a stare that said ‘tell me now or be in pain’.

“We had received reports of slave traders conducting raids outside of Larissa,” Larrius replied.

“The local garrisons should be taking care of it until one of those Civilian Protection Forces can be organised.”

“That’s just it, I think the Garrison Commander is being paid to look the other way.”

“Did you inform Governor Braextus of this?”

“No, My Liege. I didn’t speak to him.”

“Why not?”

“I only had my suspicions, no real evidence, so I thought I had better discuss it with Advisor Gabrielle first.”

“What are your suspicions exactly?”

“I witnessed slavers moving about fifty people along the road to Peliós. Then I saw a patrol led by the Garrison Commander coming from the other direction. There was no way he could have missed the slavers.”

My anger had been on a slow boil all day. It had been delay, after delay, after delay, and this hapless functionary was bringing me news about slavers and corrupt commanders!

I counted to ten before I answered so I didn’t take my frustrations out on Gabrielle’s assistant. “If this commander is corrupt then I consider it a military matter and I will deal with it. I will make sure Advisor Gabrielle knows of your report.”

“Yes, My Liege. Thank you.”

“Say nothing to anyone else about this. No one. Do you understand?”

“Yes, My Liege.”

It was obvious that Larrius was not schooled in court etiquette, because he continued to stand there when that was his cue to leave. If I didn’t know better, I would swear I was in the third level of Tartarus. “That is your cue to leave,” I said.

“Oh,” he replied and then simply turned and walked out of the room.

Galates’ eyes grew wide. No one, other than another head of state of equal rank, would dare turn their back to me and walk out of the room. Clearly this man did not know what he was doing, because if he did, he would be running for his life right about now.

“I don’t think he meant any disrespect, Your Highness,” the Lt. Commander said, trying to appease me. “I’ll go and bring him back in here.”

“No, leave it for now,” I replied.

“What are you going to do?” asked Galates, “-about the situation in Larissa, I mean.”

“Nothing, at least for the moment. Right now all I want to think about is getting out of here and bringing Gabrielle home. And the gods help the next person who delays me!”

~~~~~

Once again I started towards the stables, and once again I did not get very far.

A guard approached me in the corridor outside Gabrielle’s office. “My Liege, I-”

“If you value your life, Sergeant, I strongly suggest you take it to your immediate superior, because short of full scale invasion, I am unavailable!”

From down the hallway, Galates saw the guard talking to me and quickly came to intervene.

“What is it, Briarus?” Commander Galates asked.

“There is someone here with an urgent message for the Empress, Commander.” He gestured over his shoulder with his thumb where two other guards flanked a young man.

The wiry young man was explaining to his escorts, “I have to see the Empress. I was told to deliver the message to her, personally.” He looked at me, then dipped his head and started muttering under his breath.

“Bring him,” Galates commanded.

The youth was around twenty years old, his hair was little more than stubble, and from the dull expression on his pockmarked face I could tell he was not the sharpest weapon in the arsenal.

“You have a message for me,” I growled impatiently.

He held out a sealed scroll. Galates moved in front of me and intercepted the scroll and after a cursory check, he handed it to me.

I broke the seal. Something fell out as I unrolled it and I caught whatever it was by reflex before it hit the floor. Since it did not bite, sting, or cut me, I ignored it and continued reading.

The note on the parchment was short and to the point.

You have until dawn tomorrow to deliver fifty thousand dinars to a fishing boat moored in slip number 8. When we have the money, you will get Gabrielle. If you are late, she dies. If the boat is seized or anything happens to the captain, she dies. If you attempt rescue, she dies. Fail in any way to follow these instructions and Gabrielle dies.

I could not believe what I was reading, so I read it again. I thought it must have been some sort of sick joke until I looked at the object that had fallen from the scroll. It was a thin silver chain that looked like a thousand other thin silver chains, however the miniature gold sceptre tipped with a green gem was unique. The clasp on the chain was broken where it had been ripped from around Gabrielle’s neck.

All day the gods had conspired to keep me from going to the Amazon camp. And now my worst fears had been realised – someone had kidnapped Gabrielle!

White-hot rage roiled throughout my body like a river of lava. I crumpled the parchment and let it fall to the ground.

“What is it? What did it say?” asked Galates. He picked up the crumpled parchment and read it.

I didn’t answer – I could not. All I could manage was an anguished, angry cry. And like a bolt of lightning, my hands flashed out and put the ‘pinch’ on the unfortunate messenger.

The lad immediately grabbed at his throat and blood trickled from both nostrils. As he started to sag, I heaved him off his feet by his leather tunic and pinned him to the wall of the passage.

“I have just cut off the flow of blood to your brain, so you better start talking or I promise you, you will die quickly and very painfully. You now have twenty seconds to tell me where she is!”

The lad was petrified. Punctuated by the occasional sob, his mouth opened and closed as he gasped for breath and swore that he didn’t know. His fear was so great that he even soiled himself as I held him. “Don’t-know-nothing!” he blubbered.

With a mere eight seconds left, Galates intervened and pleaded for the boy’s life. Only because of the trust I had in Galates, I released the ‘pinch’ and let the boy slip to the floor, where he clutched his neck and struggled to catch his breath.

“Empress, I know Samon. He’s a simple lad. He might resort to the odd bit of petty theft but he’s not stupid enough to get involved in kidnapping.”

“He is involved. He brought that note.”

“I was give it. I was give it,” cried Samon as he wiped away the blood that seeped from his nose. “I didn’t kiddinap no one. Please. I didn’t. Don’t kill me. Please.”

“If you are lying-”

“I’s not lying! No. I wouldn’t. I never lies. Me dad would skin me alive if I lied. No ma’am. I’s not lying.”

Galates stepped in and took over the interrogation while I took the note and re-read it, hoping I would find some clue as to whom the kidnappers were and where they might have taken Gabrielle.

“Who gave you that note?” the commander asked.

“I’s don’t know. ‘E wore a cloak. Covered ‘is ‘ead it did. I didn’t see ‘im. No. Please. I didn’t.”

“It was a man?” The commander continued his questioning.

“Aye. A man. I knows that. ‘e paid me two dinars to deliver the message to the palace. That’s what I did. That’s all. I swear.”

“Did you read the note?” Galates asked.

Samon immediately denied it. “No. No. I’s can’t read. No. I didn’t do nothing. Please.”

Finally my boiling rage ebbed away and turned to stony resolve.

“Commander, have Samon here cleaned up and fed. Persuade him to remember every last detail about the man who gave him the note. Use whatever means necessary.”

Galates ordered Sergeant Briarus to see to it and Samon was led off, muttering anew that he didn’t know anything, while I continued to coolly issue orders.

“Galates, I want you to stay here and coordinate the rescue efforts. I want everyone – and I mean everyone – looking for her. I want every house and building in Corinth searched. Send a messenger to General Darnell and have him organise the search. I want every last soldier within a day’s ride looking for her. I am going to ride to the Amazon camp and get some answers. No one rests until Gabrielle is found, safe and sound, and her kidnappers were rotting in Tartarus!”

Galates accompanied me to the stables. As I prepared to mount my horse, a fleeting expression of shared concern passed between Galates and me. He broke the silence with tender reassurance. “Don’t worry, Highness. I’m sure she’s all right.”

“I wish I were as certain.” I fought to maintain a stoic façade against the floodwaters of grief and guilt that threatened to breech my defences. “I couldn’t stand the darkness that would follow if anything has happened…” My voice trailed off as though giving voice to my fears was a curse.

“Nothing has happened to her,” Galates replied, attempting to reassure us both, it seemed.

With that, I hurried to the stables, mounted my horse and galloped off as though my life depended on it, because it did.

A long time ago I accepted the consequences of the life I had chosen, convinced I had to go through life alone; to do otherwise was a sign of weakness. These last few days I experienced what it was like to be without Gabrielle in my life. I finally realised that living alone was the greater weakness and love was worth the struggle. I just prayed it was not too late.

The End

Continued in In the Hands of Fate

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